Earlier this week, a Qatar-based media outlet published an article claiming India is building a 3km-long airstrip and two large jetties designed for military purposes at the Mauritian island of Agalega. South Block, which houses the ministry of defence in New Delhi, is silent on the issue. However, some officials are maintaining that the construction project is only for the benefit of the islanders and that it is for non-military purpose. Mauritius Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth has also categorically denied that the construction is for military purposes.
In 2015, during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Mauritius, India signed an agreement for setting up and upgradation of infrastructure in the Agalega archipelago. The plan was to create an airstrip for landing bigger aircraft like Boeing 737-900 and Airbus 320. Setting up of communication systems, closer to the existing jetty was to identify any ship as friend or foe, was also planned. Aggressive presence of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and other Chinese commercial vessels in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR)--considered the backyard of the Indian Navy--poses a challenge for India's strategic interests. At a given time, PLAN has over a dozen of its warships in the IOR. And the Chinese research and fishing vessels are equally a threat to India's maritime interest in the region.
So, to counter Chinese influence growing in the region with a military base in Djibouti, Indian strategists, too, have kept close watch on island nations like Mauritius, Maldives, Sri Lanka and Seychelles. And deep defence ties will anyway benefit India at the time of crisis, as it is in New Delhi's strategic interests.
Mauritius is one of India’s key maritime neighbours in the Indian Ocean Region and occupies a special place in Modi's vision of ‘SAGAR’ (Security and Growth for All in the Region). The island nation is also part of India's security grid including Coastal Surveillance Radar (CSR) station of Indian Navy's National Command Control Communication Intelligence network (NC3I Network). Information Management and Analysis Centre (IMAC), at Gurgaon is the nodal centre for NC3I Network, which was set up to provide coastal security and to avert tragic incidents like the 26/11 terror attack on Mumbai and to improve coastal surveillance. The NC3I network links 51 Naval and Coast Guard stations, located along the coast and on island territories. The network provides these stations coastal surveillance information obtained from various sensors such as the coastal radar chain of the Indian Coast Guard and automatic tracking systems as well as electro-optical cameras. The network rides on dedicated terrestrial data circuits, as well as, satellite communication, which help the stations in remote locations to be networked. "We do not want to be offensive but we must be strong enough to deter our enemies from casting an evil eye upon us”, former defence minister Manohar Parrikar had once said.
Early this year, India extended a $100-million Line of Credit to Mauritius to facilitate the procurement of Indian defence equipment. A defence official claimed that Agalega island is in close proximity with Seychelles and Maldives and the Diego Garcia military base of US to its east. An agreement to provide a HAL-manufactured Dornier aircraft and an Advanced Light Helicopter Dhruv on lease to Mauritius on gratis basis for two years will boost their capabilities to patrol and monitor the extensive maritime domain more effectively. Interestingly, the Head of Mauritius Navy and the Mauritian National Security Advisor are Indian officers.
Similar to Mauritius, India went ahead with a deal to develop Assumption Island in Seychelles for military use, as both nations share close defence ties. Seychelles is of strategic importance to India as it lies close to global lanes of shipping and commerce and is an important base in the fight against seaborne terrorism and piracy in the Indian Ocean Region. In June 1986, under Operation Flowers are Blooming, the Indian Navy deployed its INS Vindhyagiri at the Seychelles Port of Victoria to abort an attempted coup against President Rene by Defence Minister Berlouis.
Besides monetary support to Seychelles, India also provided Dornier 228s and Chetak helicopters for their defence needs. India also deployed its military officers in Seychelles to train their armed forces.
Maldives is also another island, in which India has very strong interest. New Delhi extended a $50-million line of credit to the Maldives for defence projects along with an agreement to develop and maintain a key naval facility for the armed forces of the Indian Ocean archipelago. India shares strong maritime cooperation with Maldives, and in the past, New Delhi has provided patrol vessels and maritime surveillance aircraft to bolster Maldives National Defence Force's (MNDF) capabilities. India is also making efforts to elbow China's growing presence in Maldives as erstwhile government of Abdullah Yameen had leased out an island to China.
India's strategic ties with Sri Lanka is deep, and India's role in the civil war in Sri Lanka proves it. And, China’s role in the development of the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka and now coming out with a port city in Colomobo, close to Indian waters have irked the New Delhi. Moreover, the growing transfer of arms and cooperation between Beijing and Colombo is a matter of concern for India, especially after Sri Lanka allowed two Chinese submarines and a warship to dock at its port in Colombo in 2014. Since, then India has been making efforts to enhance defence cooperation with the island nation. India and Sri Lanka have deep defence cooperation, as India has named Sri Lanka as "Priority One" partner in the defence sphere. India is active in a number of areas of development activities in Sri Lanka. About one-sixth of the total development credit granted by India is made available to Sri Lanka.
"Its high time to invest more in these tiny islands, as they are strategically important for India. Our presence in these island nations not only gives us long legs, but also a way to keep a close eye on movement of aggressive Chinese military in the IOR," said a senior defence official.