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Maritime Security in the Western Indian Ocean Region: A Perspective from Mauritius

  • Geopolitics
  • 22 d ago
  • 10 min read
Maritime Security in the Western Indian Ocean Region: A Perspective from Mauritius | His Excellency Mr. Maneesh Gobin,  Foreign Minister of Mauritius

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Mauritius counterpart Pravind Jugnauth. | Press Information Bureau.

Maneesh Gobin
Maneesh Gobin - Foreign Minister of Mauritius

Today, the compounded effects of the war in Eastern Europe continue to impact the economic situation of the country with the rise in prices of commodities and energy, mounting inflation and increasing freight costs. Moreover, the disruptions caused by the resurgence of acts of piracy in the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean since November 2023 have thrown a veil of uncertainty not only over the economic situation but also on the stability of the region. In these circumstances, Mauritius is compelled to draw from lessons of its past.

Introduction

In continuation with trends observed over centuries, the vast resources of the Indian Ocean Region continue to shape the livelihoods and destinies of peoples, from coastal to distant States.

Since long, analysts have emphasized the crucial role of maritime power in shaping geopolitical influence and global dominance. It is obvious that the Indian Ocean, being the world’s third largest ocean, is of vital importance to the world, all the more so as it is a major theater for the movement of oil and goods. The fact that around 80 percent of the world’s maritime oil and one third of the world’s bulk cargo traffic pass annually through its confines, confers a strategic importance to the region.

Besides, considering that the Indian Ocean is also home to 2.9 billion people living in 33 different countries adds a complex political dimension to the maritime space and to the interaction of international players. Beyond this broad outline, it has also been argued that controlling sea routes, ensuring the sea lines of communication (SLOCs), the possession of a powerful fleet and reliance on naval bases are crucial in exerting dominance over the oceans. 

While these factors may fit in the contours of the rivalries between the great powers, I wish to highlight the perspective of Mauritius, a Small Island Developing State (SIDS) which, while situated at the heart of the Indian Ocean, possesses none of those attributes, relying only on a collective approach to enhance the maritime security within its borders. 

For Mauritius, issues relating to sovereignty, control of the Economic Exclusive Zone (EEZ), the development of Blue Economy, the depletion of fish stocks caused by Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported (IUU) fishing, climate change and the rise of sea level and drug-trafficking have and continue to remain high on its maritime security agenda.

It goes without saying that the task ahead of Mauritius in the domain of maritime security, endowed with an EEZ of 2.3 million square kilometres is very challenging, adding to the complexity of the situation. Yet, despite our limited means, our aspirations are to draw from the past to have a footprint, albeit collectively, in the future contours of the Western Indian Ocean. 

Charting a Course for Our Economic Development

Mauritius, like all countries and particularly SIDS has nurtured its bilateral relations bearing in mind its economic interests. In our case, these interests were intricately linked to the export of sugar, clothing and semi-industrial goods mostly to Europe and the United States, in exchange for the import of food and raw materials from Asia and Europe. Since its independence in 1968, Mauritius has leveraged its special ties with regional partners, especially India and France, given the strong centuries-old people-to-people links.

As an influential player in the former Common Market, France used its leverage to facilitate the access of the bulk of Mauritius sugar to the European market, at a guaranteed price under the Sugar Protocol. The earnings from sugar would be invested in the nascent tourism and manufacturing industries. France and India would also extend capacity building, technical and financial assistance, and cooperation to Mauritius in all sectors including in maritime security. 

In those times, Mauritius, having no operational deployment capabilities of its own, received assurances from France and India over its national security in case of any external threats, at a time when political coups had reached the shores of the Indian Ocean.

Having ensured its security at no costs, Mauritius pursued its development agenda catering for the welfare of its citizens through free education, free health services and employment for all. Given our understanding of the correlation between poverty and instability, this dual approach based on security assurances and access to markets for our exports drove the development of the country. 

This development strategy was imperative to prove wrong the findings of international reports predicting that Mauritius, as an independent country, was doomed to fail as it ticked all the negative indicators, namely the smallness of the country, a sugar-based monocrop economy representing 90 percent of foreign earnings, a per capita Gross Domestic Product of less than US $200, an unemployment rate exceeding 20 percent, rampant overpopulation and the country’s inherent remoteness from major markets and its multi-ethnic society. 

While these hurdles were overtaken with time, political stability, democratic governance and elections at regular intervals fuelled the development model of Mauritius. It is gratifying to observe that after 50 years of independence, at the close of 2019, Mauritius was classified as a High-Income Country by the World Bank with a Gross National Income (GNI) per capita of US $12,740.

This milestone achievement was short-lived as the pandemic that struck the country in February 2020 and throughout 2021, led to the closure of international borders causing the downturn of the economy including of the tourism industry. These unfortunate circumstances would reverse the progress of the GNI, scaling back the classification. 

Today, the compounded effects of the war in Eastern Europe continue to impact the economic situation of the country with the rise in prices of commodities and energy, mounting inflation and increasing freight costs. Moreover, the disruptions caused by the resurgence of acts of piracy in the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean since November 2023 have thrown a veil of uncertainty not only over the economic situation but also on the stability of the region.  

In these circumstances, Mauritius is compelled to draw from lessons of its past. Indeed, in the early days, ensuring maritime security and promoting development were intricately linked, each being dependent on the other for the success of the country. Today, the volatile geopolitical environment is compelling us once again to have a two-pronged strategy, centered on economic development and ensuring maritime security. 

International Initiatives Supporting Maritime Security

In 2008, pirate attacks on more than 100 vessels off the shores of the Horn of Africa caused alarm across the Western Indian Ocean Islands which sought the help of the international community to confront these challenges collectively. The islands of the Western Indian Ocean were fully supportive of these initiatives which contributed to securing our waters. Given the gravity of the unfolding events, the reaction of the international community was spontaneous as showcased below. 

First, the ATALANTA Operation, formerly the EU NAVFOR Somalia which was launched in 2008, has played a vital role in the EU Common Security and Defense Policy and the EU’s Naval Diplomacy for the Indo-Pacific. The ATALANTA as a collective initiative of the European Union in support of UN Security Council Resolutions to fight Somali piracy has been supporting the Coastal States of the Indian Ocean in the combined effort for peace, stability and maritime security. It offers a permanent protection to vulnerable vessels within the area of protection, tackles piracy and armed robbery at sea, and exercises prevention, deterrence and repression at sea and combats illicit maritime flows.  

Secondly, in response to UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1851 of 16 December 2008, an ad-hoc international governance mechanism, namely the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia (CGPCS) was established on 14 January 2009. The creation of the Contact Group was an unprecedented international naval effort comprising more than 30 countries working together to combat piracy.  

Thirdly, on 29 January 2009, nineteen countries adopted the Djibouti Code of Conduct, a cooperation agreement against piracy and armed robbery at sea. The same year, the UNSC authorized the deployment of multilateral naval forces to conduct counter-piracy patrols in the Indian Ocean region to secure safe transit of naval vessels and respond to piracy attacks.

Lastly, the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) is a multinational partnership comprising 43 nations including Australia, Canada, Djibouti, France, India, Japan, Korea, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Seychelles, the UAE, the UK and the USA, amongst others. The CMF is engaged in combating illicit non-state actors on the high seas and promoting security and stability across 3.2 million square miles of international waters which encompass the world’s most important shipping lanes. 

These concerted efforts have not only pushed back piracy as from 2015 through the intervention of the patrol vessels enhancing maritime security but continue to deter maritime crime in the Western Indian Ocean through capacity-building efforts, regional training and information sharing.

Regional Initiatives

While the Island States of the Western Indian Ocean Region are fully appreciative of the international initiatives driven by the European Union and the United States, a coordinated approach at the regional level must feed into the international framework. It goes without saying that the support of the international players is indispensable for the success of the regional initiatives. 

In that regard, I wish to recall that from 2018 to 2023, with the collaboration of the Indian Ocean Commission (IOC) and the European Union (EU), Mauritius has hosted three Ministerial Conferences on Maritime Security in the Indian Ocean. 

At the opening of the 1st Ministerial Conference, the Honorable Prime Minister of Mauritius stated the following: "Alone, none of our countries can fight the illegal traffic in our oceans, the spoliation of our seas or the growing threats to insecurity in our waters. Even collectively, the challenges are major issues. But if we can agree on ways and means to work together and to share information and coordinate our actions, we can surely do better than we are doing now. Let us join forces to make this happen.”

Mauritius took inspiration from this mission statement, particularly on the importance of a collective approach. Five years later, the words have been translated into action as the emergence of a Maritime Security Architecture, anchored within the IOC is operational, well beyond its primary objectives of combating piracy. Indeed, through the nascent Maritime Security Architecture, the IOC covers all maritime crimes and threats within and beyond the zones of each country calling for more coordinated approaches at the regional level. 

The Maritime Security program (MASE), which is funded by the European Union is based on two regional agreements. The Regional Maritime Information Fusion Centre, which is based in Madagascar, aims to deepen Maritime Domain Awareness and ensure the sharing and exchange of marine information between its national focal points and regional centers. Additionally, the Regional Coordination of Operations Centre based in Seychelles conducts missions of regional interest and organizes joint interventions at sea or in the overlying space. 

The Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) founded in 1997, today comprises 23 Member States and ten Dialogue Partners. The vision of the IORA originated during a visit by late South African President Nelson Mandela to India in 1995, when he stated the following: “The natural urge of the facts of history and geography should broaden itself to include the concept of an Indian Ocean Rim for socio-economic cooperation”.

A few years later, in 2011-2013, during India’s Chairmanship, the issue of maritime security was brought to the forefront of the IORA Agenda as one of the six priority areas of the organization. Given its broad membership, it is undeniable that the IORA, through its maritime priority and outlook for the Indo-Pacific will be called upon in shaping the Indo-Pacific vision for a shared and more secure maritime space in the Indian Ocean. 

The President of India, Smt. Droupadi Murmu witnesses the signing of four agreements between India and Mauritius in Mauritius, March 2024. | Press Information Bureau.

The President of India, Smt. Droupadi Murmu witnesses the signing of four agreements between India and Mauritius in Mauritius, March 2024. | Press Information Bureau.

Beyond the region, at another level, the Information Fusion Centre for the Indian Ocean Region situated in India operates as a collaborative Maritime Safety and Security with a view to enhancing maritime domain awareness through information sharing and cooperation with 22 countries including Australia, France, Mauritius, Seychelles, Sri Lanka, the United Kingdom and the United States, amongst others. 

As a Member of the IOC, the IORA, the Colombo Security Conclave and of the Djibouti Code of Conduct, Mauritius contributes collectively in ensuring maritime security in the Indian Ocean. 

It is worth highlighting, yet again, that the Chagos Archipelago, including Diego Garcia, forms an integral part of the territory of Mauritius. Diego Garcia hosts a US military base. Mauritius has publicly committed to the continued operation of this base, subject to respect of international law. This is also part of our endeavor to contribute to the maritime security of the Indian Ocean. 

Drug Trafficking and Substance Abuse in the Indian Ocean

The Western Indian Ocean has emerged as a transhipment hub for drugs. It is estimated that 40-50 tons of heroin transits the Western Indian Ocean into East Africa each year on their way to Europe and the United States. There is also a linkage between the movement of drugs and illicit financing and terrorism activities. In that context, the Honorable Prime Minister of Mauritius took the initiative to host the First Ministerial Conference on Drug Trafficking and Substance Abuse in the Western Indian Ocean on 24 April 2024.

The Conference called on the international community to enhance assistance to the Western Indian Ocean States in the fight against proceeds of drug related crimes and money laundering. Participants from twenty-four countries acknowledged that the region is facing serious challenges in combating drug trafficking due to the introduction of new psychoactive substances and an upsurge in the volume of drugs trafficked.

The meeting also welcomed the setting up of a Regional Drugs Observatory as a valuable resource for the region in collecting and disseminating factual and comparable information. 

The Way Forward

My participation in the Indian Ocean Conference organized by the India Foundation in Perth in February 2024 leads me to underscore the merits of a collective approach to maritime security in the region, encompassing both countries of the North and of the South, whose destinies are intertwined. 

I, therefore, take the view that the India Foundation, or an entity with similar noble objectives, may spearhead strategic dialogue towards collaborative maritime security architecture. I am also of the view that we may avail of the expertise of the Munich Security Conference which has 60 years of experience in such strategic initiatives.

The objective of Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) is indeed a common denominator; without security there is no growth and the only way to achieve maritime security is through shared experiences. Such a sharing requires dialogue at a strategic level while simultaneously building on past experiences from around the globe. We can ultimately create the necessary maritime security architecture to make an IMPACT in our region through the Indian Ocean Multidisciplinary Platform Against Criminal Threats (IMPACT). 

(Exclusive to NatStrat)


     

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