West of Diego Garcia, India is Building an Island Base of its Own
[By Samuel Bashfield]
The small, remote Mauritian island of North Agalega, located in the south-western Indian Ocean, 700 miles north of Mauritius, is currently a hive of construction activity. India sought access to the islands in 2015 to develop as an air and naval staging point for surveillance of the south-west Indian Ocean – in a sense redolent of facilities other nations operate, such as the joint US-UK base at Diego Garcia.
Satellite imagery shows major airfield and port developments are well underway, reportedly worth some $87 million. Comparing the most recent images from Google Earth to the same location as seen in 2014 shows a new 3000-meter runway – capable of hosting the Indian Navy’s new Boeing P-8I maritime patrol aircraft – and considerable apron overshadows the existing airfield in the middle of the island.
India regards the new base to be essential for facilitating both air and surface maritime patrols in the south-west Indian Ocean, and as an intelligence outpost. This recent satellite imagery now indicates the scale and capabilities of this new facility. The project entails a new airport, port and logistics and communication facilities and – potentially – “any other facility related to the project." So far, project details have been tightly held by both India and Mauritius.
The imagery shows what looks like barracks and fields which could be used as parade grounds or sporting facilities located near the north end of the runway. These images do not readily show evidence of fuel storage facilities, or communications and intelligence installations – such as radomes. Such equipment and facilities are expected to be visible in future imagery.
North Agalega Island is some seven miles long and one mile wide, with a total population of less than 300 people. Until recently, it was virtually cut off from the world, with a rudimentary jetty and a small airfield barely fit for light aircraft.
The island is a former slave plantation, and the name of its main town of Vingt Cinq (twenty five in French) is thought to refer to the number of lashes slaves would receive as punishment.
The jetty and port facilities India is constructing are also noteworthy. A port is being constructed at the north end of the island (which now includes accommodation for up to 430 Indian workers and it is assumed that these buildings will be retained and repurposed once construction concludes). The latest images show the original jetty in addition to the considerable port development (two longer jetties) stretching closer to the deep water.
India’s Ministry of External Affairs stated the agreement with Mauritius inked in 2015 would “go a long way in ameliorating the conditions of the inhabitants of this remote island” – while also enabling Mauritian Defence Force operations. India had also hoped for a similar arrangement in the Seychelles.
This development is a manifestation of Modi’s 2016 vision for the Indian Ocean, articulated as "Security and Growth for All in the Region" (SAGAR). Under SAGAR, New Delhi aims to work together with Indian Ocean regional governments to “engineer virtuous cycles of cooperation”.
But more importantly, this facility in Mauritius will provide an important staging point for India’s new P8I fleet, which recently conducted its first joint patrol with France from nearby Réunion. This was followed by India signing an agreement with Japan which provides India access naval facilities at Djibouti. Agalega will also facilitate maritime patrols over the Mozambique Channel – now a popular passage for large commercial ships, particularly oil tankers. The staging point will also allow the Indian Navy to observe shipping routes around southern Africa, which now account for a significant portion of China’s energy imports.
The island will presumably also provide a useful location for communications and electronic intelligence facilities.
India has long had a close security relationship with Mauritius, anchoring its prominent role in the south-west Indian Ocean. The relationship is bolstered by ethnic ties and a shared Hindu religion with many Mauritians. This has led commentators to describe Mauritius as the “Little India” of the south-west Indian Ocean – evidenced in part by Indian funding of major infrastructure projects, and provision of lines of credit. Indian officials also occupying some key security positions in the Mauritian government, including the roles of National Security Advisor and head of the Mauritius Coast Guard.
In recent years, India has sought to further develop its military access to the south-west Indian Ocean and Mozambique Channel by building a new naval and air facility on Seychelles’ remote Assumption Island. In 2015, Modi signed an agreement with the Seychelles President to develop Assumption Island for military use. But the deal generated considerable political opposition in the Seychelles. A revised deal was signed in 2018, but the recently elected Seychelles President Wavel Ramkalawan has canned the project over sovereignty and environmental concerns. These developments will only bolster India’s resolve to militarize Agalega.
Parallels with the Chagossian experience – a people forcibly removed from the Chagos Archipelago in the early 1970s to make way for the joint UK-US military base on Diego Garcia – sound alarms for ethnic Creole Agaléens and their supporters.
As the Chagos example tragically demonstrated, in the eyes of some military planners, “islanders and a base would not mix." How Mauritius manages the construction and eventual Indian military use of Agalega will have immense consequences for the Agaléens.
This base on Agalega will cement India’s presence in the south-west Indian Ocean and facilitate its power projection aspirations in this region. As new imagery of Agalega is publicly released in the coming months the full scale and capabilities of this facility will be better understood.
Samuel Bashfield is a PhD candidate and research officer at the Australian National University’s National Security College.
This article is part of a two-year project being undertaken by the ANU National Security College on the Indian Ocean, with the support of the Australian Department of Defence. It appears here courtesy of The Lowy Interpreter and may be found in its original form here.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.