The Western Indian Ocean Region Represents a Key Defensive Space for India


There is no denying that India has become an essential shaper of a changing world order, and a critical component of this is its active diplomacy in the oceans that surround us. Aside from the littoral states along the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, New Delhi has begun to engage much more vigorously in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). 

For India, the most crucial strategic islands in the Western Indian Ocean are Mauritius and the Seychelles. In this part of the ocean, 990 km north of Mauritius at 10°25’S, 56’40’E are the twin islands of Agaléga . A dependency of Mauritius, the two low-lying islands of consolidated coral debris, separated by a 1.5 km channel, nearly dry at low tide. The North Island is long and narrow, 12.4 km by 1.6 km, while South Island is pear-shaped, measuring 6.6 km by 3.6 km. In 2015 during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Mauritius a MoU was signed between the governments of Mauritius and India to develop the Agaléga  islands and resolve the islands’ infrastructural problems. This was followed by intense speculation in the media that this was an attempt by India to develop a naval base and military infrastructure in the Indian Ocean region.

Tracking ships from ships from Indian ports to Agaléga , report, media outlet Al Jazeera reported in August 2021 that, construction activity on the North Island of Agaléga  ‘will be used by India as a base of military operations, part of its plans to expand its geopolitical influence in the Indian Ocean.’ AFCONS, a major Indian construction company that specialises in airstrips and other large infrastructure projects was awarded the tender worth about $250m for the expansion in Agaléga . According to the report an airstrip more than three kilometres long (1.8 miles) has been constructed.

Although both Mauritius and India deny the construction project is for military purposes, Every now and then news emergers which implicitly indicates that the ‘mysterious construction on Agaléga  is for a military base. For instance, satellite imagery dated 20 April 2022 shows the presence of large hangars which were said to be for the purpose of accommodating the Indian Navy’s P-8I submarine-hunting aircraft, next to the newly-built runway. Mauritius has categorically stated that the new infrastructure facilities in Agaléga  are being developed for use by its coast guard personnel .

The large body of Indian diplomat KM Panikkar’s works focused on the Indian Ocean and emphasised the necessity for India to embrace a maritime vision. In ‘India and the Indian Ocean: An Essay on the Influence of Sea Power on Indian History’ He had written, he writes “It is an obvious fact to any student of history that India’s security lies in the Indian Ocean; that without a well considered and effective level policy India’s position in the world will be weak, dependent on another and​ its freedom at the mercy of any country capable of controlling the Indian Ocean.” India’s recent maritime policy has focused on cooperative measures for sustainable use of the oceans. Realisation  of dawdling inaction in its zone of interest for decades has prompted India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi to expand its maritime security and defence engagements, demonstrating its role as a major security provider in the IOR. India has initiated a vision of  ‘Security and Growth for all in the Region’ acronymed SAGAR, and aims to provide a framework for a safe, secure, and stable maritime domain in the Indian Ocean Region.

Capitalising on its historic ties with the island nations, India is now actively pursuing a firmer security presence through infrastructure development, provision of military training, defence equipment and even security advisors. For instance, as part of a decades-old arrangement between the two countries, former intelligence officer Vivek Johri, has been appointed  the new National Security Advisor (NSA) in Mauritius.  In March 2020, India was granted observer status  to the Indian Ocean Commission (IOC) an intergovernmental organisation comprising five small-island states in the Western Indian Ocean – the Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius, Réunion (a French department), and Seychelles.

Aside from modernising facilities in the Andaman Islands and at a base in Campbell Bay in the Nicobar Islands, India has begun an accelerated infrastructure development project with dual-use logistics facilities in Mauritius and Seychelles. India’s heightened activities in the collective of island states in the South Western Indian Ocean which includes the Comoros, Mauritius, Madagascar, Mayotte, Reunion and Seychelles, has to be seen in view of rising aggressive Chinese activity in the region. China’s string of pearls and it’s interpretation of the United Nations convention for the Law of the Sea, it’s revival of the maritime sea route development of the Hambantota and and Gwadar ports, financing of thee first sea-crossing bridge for the Maldives from Hulhumale to Hulhule. India is also keen that its strategic presence remains over the important route for shipping in eastern Africa, the Mozambique Channel, located between Madagascar and Mozambique. 

For India the Western Indian Ocean Regions represent a key defensive space, and as such Security cooperation is a key pillar of the vigorous bilateral engagements that New Delhi has with these island nations. Against a backdrop of a more dominant Chinese presence in the region, the rationalisation for intensifying strategic cooperation between India and countries in the region becomes all the more essential.

The centrality to India in Mauritius’ foreign policy dates back to the policies of the first Prime Minister and the Father of the Mauritian Nation Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam. Both nations have deep ties and the fact that even today the NSA of Mauritius is an Indian appointee speaks volumes of the trust that marks the bilateral. Since its independence India has extended more than a dozen LOCs to Mauritius to assist in the development of its infrastructure development and capacity building projects. India is acknowledged as the first responder during times of crisis like the Covid 19 pandemic or in the wake of a massive oil spill following the grounding of the Japanese vessel Wakashio off the Mauritian coast in 2020. The Indian Navy has assisted the Mauritian teams in several missions, like salvaging the Mauritian Tug ‘Sir Gaetan Duval’, which sank following an accidental collision during the Wakashio operations. Or in providing hydrographic assistance to the islands of Mauritius for mapping ocean waters in order to insure maritime security. The assistance for infrastructure development of Agaléga Island is part of this broader cooperation that India has with Mauritius.

Vaishali Basu Sharma
Vaishali Basu Sharma
Vaishali Basu Sharma is an analyst of strategic and economic affairs. She has worked as a consultant with India’s National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) for nearly a decade. She is presently associated with New Delhi based think tank Policy Perspectives Foundation.