India has been quietly turning an Indian Ocean tropical island into a strategic naval outpost.
The Indian Ocean island is one of two Agaléga islands that fall under the sovereignty of Mauritius. Without fanfare India has been building a naval base in order to better extend its influence over the western side of the ocean that bears its name.
It follows an approach India made to the Seychelles some years back, which fell through leaving India exposed in the face of a growing Chinese presence in the region. China has established a naval base at the port of Djibouti in the Gulf of Aden (GoA), giving it a meaningful influence over the Red Sea and Gulfs of Aden and Oman.
China also maintains constant naval patrols in the north-west Indian Ocean and GoA. This it says is to safeguard Chinese merchant shipping in a potentially dangerous region.
India, meanwhile, has developed strong relationships with Mauritius, which lies further to the south and straddling another of the major shipping lanes.
The Agaléga islands, in between these two regions, are sparsely populated, not visited by tourists or industry and leaving the 300 or so permanent inhabitants largely dependent on coconut farming and fishing.
Before the arrival of the Indian Navy, the islands possessed a jetty for fishing boats and a small airfield more for emergency purposes than anything else. In 2021 the Indians arrived and began building a 3 000-metre runway and airfield capable of taking large military aircraft, including the Boeing P-8I surveillance and other anti-submarine warfare aircraft of the Indian Armed Forces.
Roughly 50 Indian military personnel were initially stationed on the island, which is taking on the appearance of a permanent forward base with satellite evidence showing the construction of two jetties extending from the island.
India, which sees the Indian Ocean as its own backyard, has long had concerns with any Chinese incursion into the area. India placed considerable pressure on Sri Lanka when its close neighbour allowed China to firstly develop a new deepwater seaport facility at Hambantota, and then leased it to that country for 99 years.
One of the stipulations placed by India on Sri Lanka was that no Chinese naval vessel should be allowed to use the new port. When the Chinese surveillance vessel Yang Wang 5 docked in Hambantota in August 2022, alarm bells rang in both India and the US and protests were made to Sri Lankan officials.
Sri Lanka lost control of the new port through indebtedness, with a Chinese company taking over the port in lieu of debt. Sri Lanka’s situation is not unique, other nations on the surrounds of the Indian Ocean and, for that matter, those facing the South Atlantic, face similar challenges arising from China’s Belt and Road Initiative which inevitably results in heavy debts owed to China.
India, no doubt, remains strongly conscious of this and the increasing likelihood of additional Chinese presence in both oceans. The South Atlantic may not be its concern, but the Indian Ocean certainly is.
Why should China be interested in developing additional naval presences on either side of sub-Saharan Africa? From where else can it so easily to project power and influence towards both Europe, the Middle East and the Americas!
Though the Indian presence on Agaléga in no way resembles that of the well-established US military presence on Diego Garcia further east (the Chagos Archipelago, an area claimed by Mauritius, it should be remembered), it is early days and facilities at the Agaléga island may well develop further in the coming few years.
India’s Foreign Minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, hinted at this when he addressed the Council on Foreign Relations, an American think tank. “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 mentioned.
Jaishankar added that concerns were not only confined 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 said.
The strategic position of the Agaléga base is important for this dual role. North Agaléga lies close to the main sea lane for ships using the Suez Canal/Red Sea route to the Far East.
India is understood to have commenced aerial patrols not only over the wider region but also over the Mozambique Channel, in company with naval patrols by elements of the Indian Navy.
Apart from France, India appears to be the only other country to have an interest in patrolling the channel between Africa and Madagascar. Due to a lack of available ships, the South African Navy has shown itself inadequate for this task.
North Agaléga Island is small, with a length of just 12 kilometres and width of 1.5 kilometres. The few people living there occupy a little village known as Vingt Cinq, which in French means Twenty Five. This is believed to refer to 25 lashes, the regular number suffered as punishment by the former slaves marooned on the island.
At present, there appears to be no intent by the Indians or Mauritius to relocate the original inhabitants, as took place with those on the Chagos Archipelago.
Until recently, Agaléga was virtually cut off from the world, with a rudimentary jetty for the occasional fishing vessel and a small grass airfield barely fit for small aircraft. Now two new jetties extend into the sea towards deep water, suggesting that soon larger naval ships will be able to call.
As the power dynamics evolve in the Indian Ocean, the isolated island that few had ever heard of is taking on an increasing importance.