Hu’s Mauritius?

Indian Ocean diplomacy hots up as China commits $1 billion to a country of 1.3 million

Written by The Indian Express | Published:February 19, 2009 12:51 am

Chinese President Hu Jintao wrapped up his African tour by breezing in and out of the Indian Ocean island state,Mauritius,this week. Given the reputation of Mauritius as Asia’s financial gateway to Africa,Hu’s visit would seem a routine one. The Chinese president’s sojourn in Mauritius,however,is anything but ordinary. It underlines Beijing’s relentless thrust to secure a permanent naval foothold in the western Indian Ocean. Among the highlights of Hu’s visit to Mauritius included $250 million to modernise the airport in the island’s capital Port Louis and a commitment to complete a $750 million special economic zone.

Even the sleepiest of South Block’s mandarins should be able to figure out that the scale of China’s commitment to Mauritius — a billion dollars in a country of barely 1.3 million people — might have something to do with maritime strategy. Whether New Delhi is aware of what China is up to in Mauritius,the region has been quick to grasp the significance of Hu’s visit — that “Beijing is determined to draw Port Louis out of India’s sphere of influence”. Few countries in the world are as intimately tied to India as Mauritius is. Official India,however,tends to take these links for granted. For New Delhi,Mauritius must now mean a lot more than Bihari diaspora,a safe haven for Indian capital,and an attractive locale for Bollywood.

Any maritime power worth its salt knows that Mauritius is a prized piece of real estate that allows the control of Indian Ocean sea-lanes. No wonder Great Britain kept the island of Diego Garcia for itself before freeing Mauritius in the late ‘60s. Diego Garcia is now the main base for American naval operations in the Indian Ocean. Removing Diego Garcia has not made Mauritius any less attractive. Amidst its growing maritime interests in the Indian Ocean,Beijing is zeroing in on Mauritius to secure a permanent naval presence. That,of course,would only come at the expense of the Indian navy,which has been the principal external security partner of Mauritius all these decades. If the South Block can quickly bestir itself,India will find itself locked in a tough zero-sum naval game with China in the western Indian Ocean. If it can’t,New Delhi will be dealt out of the game without much ceremony.

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