Is India building a secret naval base in the Mauritius Agaléga Islands?

World News

On Thursday, Mauritius opened an Indian-financed airstrip and jetty on the island of Agaléga, but denied that the secluded islet will be utilised for military purposes.

The three-kilometer (1.9-mile) aviation strip and jetty were agreed upon during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 2015 visit to Mauritius and will cost 8.8 billion Mauritian rupees (US$192 million).

Jugnauth stated that the infrastructures would assist the Indian Ocean island modernise and boost its security.

“They will strengthen the fight against drugs, human trafficking, and illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, as well as enable emergency response,” he said, describing it as a fantasy turned reality.

Mauritius is an archipelago of four islands, including Saint-Brandon and Rodrigues, which have held autonomous status since 2001.

Meanwhile, India has forged close ties with Mauritius, which is located further south and shares another significant shipping lane.

The Agaléga islands, located between these two regions, are thinly populated, with only 300 permanent residents who rely primarily on coconut farming and fishing.

Prior to the entrance of the Indian Navy, the islands had a fishing jetty and a small airfield, which was primarily used for emergencies. In 2021, the Indians arrived and began construction of a 3,000-meter runway and airstrip capable of accommodating large military aircraft, such as the Indian Armed Forces’ Boeing P-8I surveillance and anti-submarine warfare aircraft.

Approximately 50 Indian military soldiers were initially stationed on the island, which is taking on the look of a permanent forward base, with satellite imagery revealing the building of two jetties that stretch

India, which regards the Indian Ocean as its own backyard, has long been concerned about any Chinese invasion into the region. India put significant pressure on Sri Lanka when its neighbour allowed China to build a new deep-water seaport facility in Hambantota and then lease it to that country for 99 years.

One of the conditions imposed by India on Sri Lanka was that no Chinese naval vessels be permitted to use the new port. When the Chinese surveillance vessel Yang Wang-5 docked in Hambantota in August 2022, alarm bells rang in India and the United States, prompting demonstrations against Sri Lankan officials.

Sri Lanka lost ownership of the new port due to debts, with a Chinese corporation taking over in lieu of debt. Sri Lanka’s issue is not unusual; other nations in the Indian Ocean region, as well as those in the South Atlantic, face similar challenges as a result of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which ultimately ends in large debts owed to China.

India, without a doubt, is acutely aware of this and the growing prospect of increased Chinese presence in both oceans. The South Atlantic may not be of concern, but the Indian Ocean most certainly is.

Why might China be interested in expanding its naval presence on either side of sub-Saharan Africa? Where else can power be projected so easily?

Though the Indian presence on Agaléga bears no resemblance to the well-established US military presence on Diego Garcia further east (the Chagos Archipelago, which Mauritius claims), it is still early days, and facilities on the Agaléga island may develop further in the coming years.

Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, India’s Foreign Minister, hinted to this when he spoke to the Council on Foreign Relations, an American think organisation. “From an Indian point of view, I would say it’s very reasonable for us to try and prepare for greater Chinese presence than we have seen before,” he said.

Jaishankar stated that concerns were not limited to China. “If you look at maritime threats, piracy, smuggling or terrorism, if there is no authority, no monitoring, no force out there to actually enforce the rule of the law, it’s a problem,” he went on to say.

The geographical location of the Agaléga installation is critical for its dual duty. North Agaléga is near to the primary sea lane for ships using the Suez Canal/Red Sea route to the Far East.

India is said to have begun aircraft patrols not only over the region but also over the Mozambique Channel, in addition to maritime patrols by components of the Indian Navy.

Aside from France, it appears that India is the only other country interested in

North Agaléga Island is small, measuring 12 kilometres long and 1.5 kilometres wide. The few residents live in a little settlement called Vingt Cinq, which translates as Twenty Five in French. This is thought to be a reference to the standard penalty of 25 lashes for former slaves marooned on the island.

At the moment, it appears that neither the Indians nor Mauritius want to remove the original residents, as they did on the Chagos Archipelago.

Until recently, Agaléga was virtually isolated from the rest of the world, with just a crude jetty for the occasional fishing vessel and a small grass airfield barely suitable for small aircraft. Now, two new jetties extend into the sea to deep water.

As power dynamics in the Indian Ocean shift, the remote island that few have heard of becomes increasingly important.

Regardless of the Mauritian and Indian governments’ claims, it is evident that India has been quietly transforming an unremarkable Indian Ocean tropical island into a crucial naval base.

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