Even as China continues to expand its presence in the Western Indian Ocean Region, both economically and militarily, India has been constantly looking to counter the Chinese and to consolidate its own position in the region. In line with its policy of checking the growing Chinese influence in the strategic region, India has appointed a defence attache for its mission for its Mission in the African country of Madagascar.
The move becomes that much more important given that the present Madagascar President, Rajoelina was part of a military coup during the 2009 political crisis in the country. The then President Ravalomanana had lost the support of the Malagasy Army, and had transferred power directly to Rajoelina after overthrowing the Ravalomanana regime. Given the pro-military tilt of the present regime, India’s move of appointing a defence attache for its Madagascar Mission can be seen as a major shot in the arm for India’s diplomatic relations with the island country.
India’s move is highly relevant in the context of the ongoing base race in the Western Indian Ocean and the fast emerging importance of the Vanilla Islands. The Vanilla islands, known for the cultivation of Vanilla, consist of The Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mayotte, Reunion and Seychelles are located in and around the Mozambique channel thus having a crucial strategic location with respect to trade with African nations.
While Mayotte and Reunion are French territories, the rest of these exotic island countries located in the Western Indian Ocean Region are independent. Earlier, the Vanilla Islands had lost much of their strategic importance after the construction of Suez Canal linking the Mediterranean and the Red Sea that allowed the European countries to bypass Africa.
However, with the emergence of Asian giants- China, Japan and India, the Vanilla island countries have once again come to boast of strategic importance. African resources are crucial for the brisk growth of these Asian powers. In the newly emerging geopolitical equations, these countries are recognising their newfound strategic importance and are therefore looking ahead for forging partnerships with the major powers. China too looks at the Western Indian Ocean Region as its gateway to Africa.
India’s engagement with Madagascar and the appointment of a defence attache for its Mission in Madagascar strengthens India’s position in the strategic region. Increased engagement with Madagascar is at the core of India’s strategy to check Chinese presence in the Region, and a number of initiatives have been taken to forge closer ties with the African country.
As a part of its efforts to use the Indian Coast Guard (ICG) for its outreach to the Vanilla Islands, ICG ship, Vikram, had arrived at Madagascar’s port city Toamasina on a goodwill visit. Four Indian naval ships had visited Madagascar this year, following a defence MoU that was signed by the two countries. Currently, the two countries are discussing several defence projects under that MoU for capacity building and also for training Malagasy defence personnel. Last year, India had also offered a $80.7 million Line of Credit for agriculture and mechanisation.
Better defence ties with Madagascar can help India in improving its military presence in the region in order to catch up with China. India has already made massive inroads in this direction. When it comes to the Mozambique channel, India is working towards building strategic military assets in two islands among the Vanilla islands- Agalega in Mauritius and Assumption in Seychelles, which have been leased to India.
The Coastal Radar facility has been operational since March 2016 in Seychelles and the island country also allowed India to set up military infrastructure on the island last year, which shows that India has been able to forge rather close ties with the strategically located vanilla island country.
This strategic advantage is further boosted by access to the US base, Diego Gracia in Mauritius. The finalisation of a logistics exchange agreement between India and France would also give former the access to the Reunion island, a French territory in the Vanilla Islands.
Coming to Madagascar, India’s listening post and radar facility in Northern Madagascar that is India’s first listening post on a foreign soil further strengthens its presence and position in the Indian Ocean Region.
India’s increased engagement with Vanilla Island countries as is manifested by strengthening of diplomatic ties with Madagascar and also Vice President, Venkaiah Naidu’s visit to the island nation of Comoros, is largely in line with India’s policy of countering the Chinese strategy based on ‘String of Pearls’ theory, whereby China seeks to jeopardize India’s standing in her own vicinity by building naval bases in the strategically located points of the Indian Ocean Region.
India’s engagement with Madagascar is bound to generate a lot of enthusiasm as it might just put India a step ahead of China in the ongoing base rase in the Western Indian Ocean. It need not be emphasised that the Mozambique Channel carries huge strategic importance at a time when the major Asian powers are dominating global growth and the African resources hold renewed significance in order to sustain their continuous growth. The road through the Mozambique Channel to African countries could be an awkward one for China in the near future if ever India so desires. Fortunately, for India, it seems to be making massive inroads in the field of defence cooperation with Madagascar that might come in handy for India in the strategically crucial region.