Circling Mauritius

President Hu Jintao’s four-nation African tour beginning this week will conclude in Mauritius,a geopolitically sensitive Indian Ocean island state that has strong political....

Written by C. Raja Mohan | Published: February 11, 2009 3:16 am

President Hu Jintao’s four-nation African tour beginning this week will conclude in Mauritius,a geopolitically sensitive Indian Ocean island state that has strong political and security ties with New Delhi. That this is the second African tour for Hu in less than three years underlines the extraordinary amount of political capital that Beijing is investing in Africa. After hosting China’s first Africa summit in Beijing during 2006,Hu went on an extended tour of eight nations that culminated in the tiny Seychelles.

The Indian navy,of course,had no reason to see Hu’s interest in Seychelles as driven by the island’s tropical beaches. Nor would South Block want to believe Hu’s sojourn in Mauritius as a relief and recreation stop at the end of a long African safari. It might not be accidental that Hu’s two trips to Africa are ending in Indian Ocean island states that are rather close to India.

As one of the strongest supporter of the Chinese naval aspirations,Hu understands the importance of the Indian Ocean islands states for Beijing’s new maritime strategy. Amidst China’s growing dependence on imported natural resources,both energy and mineral,and its massive export of manufactured goods to foreign markets have made the protection of sea-lanes in the Indian Ocean a high priority for Beijing and a major justification for the rapid modernisation of its naval forces.

It is also not difficult to see why the Chinese navy would want long-term political and security arrangements with the Indian Ocean littoral states. Without special arrangements for access,its navy’s ability to operate in the Indian Ocean would be severely constrained.

Unlike the Atlantic and Pacific oceans,the entry into the Indian Ocean for extra-regional forces can be denied at various choke point like the Malacca straits. If China’s quest for access in the eastern Indian Ocean has been focussed on Myanmar,Sri Lanka and the Maldives,in the western part of the littoral,Seychelles and Mauritius are of natural interest to Beijing. Hu’s visits to Seychelles and Mauritius in quick succession might be about laying foundations for a long-term strategic presence in these two island states.  India,which has strong security arrangements with both these states,would be unwise to these for granted in the face of tempting Chinese overtures to Seychelles and Mauritius.

Arabian nights

As it heads out to Africa,Hu’s caravan is pitching the tents in the Saudi Arabian desert for three days this week. This is Hu’s second visit to Riyadh in less than three years. The Chinese president is expected to focus on strengthening the strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia and deepen the collective engagement with the six nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

Since the Saudi King Abdullah traveled to China in January 2006,Beijing has been determined to make the most of Riyadh’s new look-east policy. Within three months,in April 2006,President Hu was on a return visit to Riyadh.

We might recall that King Abdullah also traveled to India in January 2006 and was the honoured guest at the Republic Day celebrations.

More than three years after the King’s visit,New Delhi has not yet managed to send the Prime Minister to the Saudi Kingdom. That is one way of underlining the difference China’s purposeful diplomacy and India’s meandering statecraft.

Beyond resources

Chinese officials have been eager to dismiss suggestions from the Western media that Hu’s latest travel is all about clinching deals on natural resources.  “Of the five countries on the itinerary for Hu’s trip this time,apart from Saudi Arabia,the four African nations (Mali,Senegal,Tanzania and Mauritius) are not rich in energy or resources,” a senior official of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing said last week.

New Delhi must take Beijing’s assertion as true. Defence and security cooperation has been a major element of China’s outreach to Africa.China is sending more peacekeeping troops to Africa than ever before,expanding its military exchanges with various African governments,and has begun to raise its arms exports to the region.

Among the most popular Chinese military exports to Africa are said to be the J-7,K-8 and Y-12 aircraft,which are relatively inexpensive and easy to operate. China sees those countries already armed with the K-8 and J-7 aircraft as potential customers for its new FC-1 fighters.

The writer is a professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies,Nanyang Technological University,Singapore.

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