The islands of the south-western Indian Ocean – Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mayotte, Réunion and Seychelles – sit astride important chokepoints and Sea Lines of Communication and are gaining prominence in India’s strategic calculus. Enhanced statecraft, a forward presence of the Indian Navy and closer relations with France, including via a “Quad Plus” security dialogue, are ways for India to step up its engagement in the region while also contributing to the continuation of the rules-based order in the waters around the Vanilla Islands.
- To better mould the region’s strategic environment in its favour and as a resident power in the Indian Ocean region, India needs to engage with the island states of the south-western Indian Ocean: Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mayotte, Réunion and Seychelles.
- Known as the Vanilla Islands, the group abuts maritime chokepoints and busy Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs), giving it enhanced strategic importance.
- For China, the importance of Brazil, South Africa and the rest of Africa as sources of commodities and oil is rising and vessels travelling to China transit the chokepoints and SLOCs around the Vanilla Islands. Consequently, those chokepoints and SLOCs gain prominence in India’s strategic calculus.
- India’s formal entry in the south-western Indian Ocean region has been facilitated by France. With France’s support, India joined the francophone Indian Ocean Commission (IOC) in March 2020.
- In a setback to India, however, the newly-elected President of the Seychelles, Rev. Wavel Ramkalawan, indicated that the Seychelles-India agreement to develop a naval base on Assumption Island would not go ahead. India urgently needs to engage with the new government of Seychelles.
The group of islands in the south-western Indian Ocean, comprising the Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mayotte, Réunion and Seychelles, is known as the Vanilla Islands; ‘the term Vanilla is used because these countries are known for their export of the flavouring substance, vanilla.’
India perceives the Vanilla Islands to be in its sphere of influence. Vessels carrying commodities and oil from Africa and beyond to China transit the chokepoints and SLOCs around the Vanilla Islands, which makes these nodes and routes pressure points for China. The relationship between Beijing and New Delhi is currently prickly due to China’s activities in the Indian Ocean (IO) and along the Line of Actual Control, their common border in the Himalayas. As the resident IO power, it is in India’s strategic interests to ensure the continuation of the rules-based order in the chokepoints and SLOCs around the Vanilla Islands.
The Vanilla Islands
As commentator and analyst C. Raja Mohan has noted:
Nothing has diminished India’s geopolitical thinking [more] than the idea of South Asia. The shrinking of India’s regional vision was also reinforced by India’s inward economic orientation and the sundering of historic commercial ties with the maritime neighbours. When he came to power in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi seemed to go by the traditional South Asian framework. He invited all the leaders of the SAARC for his swearing in-ceremony to signal the commitment to putting the neighbourhood first. There was one exception though – it was the invitation to the political leadership of Mauritius to join the swearing-in. The invitation probably reflected Modi’s sensibility to India’s deep diasporic connection with the Indian Ocean island republic. Whatever the intent might have been, it set the stage for visualising a region that transcends South Asia and puts the maritime neighbourhood back into India’s strategic consciousness.
Prime Minister Modi’s re-imagining of India’s neighbourhood ensured that its maritime neighbours, including the Vanilla Islands, were no longer below India’s radar. In the Vanilla Islands group, the Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius and Seychelles are sovereign nations, while Mayotte and Réunion are départements of metropolitan France. The historical importance of France is the glue that binds these island nations. ‘India has long viewed the Indian Ocean as being in its region of influence. As an extension of that thinking, the island states in the ocean automatically fell under that same influence.’ As far back as 1945, K.M. Panikkar, an Indian strategist, said, ‘that in the west, India’s frontiers extend up to the Cape of Good Hope, Madagascar, Mauritius, Socotra, Aden and the Persian Gulf.’ Keshav Balkrishna Vaidya, an author and exponent of India’s sea power, advocated creating ’a whole ring of Indian naval bases, outside India, spanning the Ocean, to the south at the various island chains, notably the Maldives, Chagos Islands (including Diego Garcia), the Seychelles, Mauritius and Madagascar.’
India has close naval ties with Mauritius, having donated patrol vessels to that country. As part of its Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) expansion programme, the Indian Navy has also established a radio and radar monitoring station in Madagascar. It is significant that, in 2015, Prime Minister Modi chose Mauritius to put forward his “Security and Growth for All in the Region” (or SAGAR) vision. It seeks to create a climate of trust, transparency and peaceful resolution of maritime issues. To further cement India’s ties to the island states, in 2018, Indian President Ram Nath Kovind visited Madagascar. In 2019, Vice-President Venkaiah Naidu visited the Comoros. In November 2020, Dr S. Jaishankar, India’s Foreign Minister, visited the Seychelles. The minister spoke of ‘the centrality of the Seychelles to India’s vision of SAGAR.’ China’s disquieting presence in the region is the obvious catalyst.
The Importance of Islands
History demonstrates the importance of islands to maritime nations and of favourable relations with island nations in their maritime sphere. As Baruah observes, ‘… rising nations have [sought to control] strategic islands to project power across … the globe.’ That insight has a more contemporary analogue; as one report notes, ‘China has tipped the balance of power through an island-building campaign.’ ‘The islands afford China bases from which it can intimidate ASEAN states into abandoning their claims or acquiescing to Chinese demands. China’s paramilitary forces and fishing vessels use the island bases as hubs from which to harass and even sink commercial ships from ASEAN countries.’ India’s Maritime Security Strategy emphatically states, ‘India’s primary areas of maritime interest include South-West Indian Ocean, including IOR island nations therein.’ India, however, seeks a climate of trust and transparency in the region.
The China Factor
‘The Sino-Indian land border dispute, which manifested in the Galwan Valley clash of June 2020, has caused very strong anti-China sentiments in India. This adversely affected the relationship, including in the maritime domain.’ ‘China is seeking access and control of islands in the IOR to trump its less than favourable maritime geography.’ This has led to an increased Chinese footprint in the IO area, including in the south-west Indian Ocean and is a huge concern for India which considers the IO as its strategic backyard. Most of China’s energy and raw material supplies, however, pass through the IO, which is China’s great vulnerability. In the words of Admiral Arun Prakash, the eighteenth chief of the Indian Navy, ‘The Indian Navy is in “home waters” in the Indian Ocean and well positioned to threaten China’s shipping and hence its economy.’
The French Connection
Due to an increasingly aggressive China and continuing uncertainty about the United States’ global commitment, the role of “middle powers” in the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific assumes greater relevance. ‘Burdened by its inherited Anglo-Saxon bias, Delhi could hardly appreciate the pivotal value of France and more broadly that of Europe, in transforming India’s international position.’ ‘In January 2020, the partnership was in evidence at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) when China sought to raise the subject of Kashmir in an informal, closed door session. France, supported by Russia and the US, led the move to block the Chinese initiative.’ ‘France backed India at the UN Security Council discussion on Jammu and Kashmir in 2019, an indication of France’s strategic commitment to India.’ During the 34th India-France Strategic Dialogue in January 2021, ‘the French envoy made it clear that it [France] would support India in the UN Security Council and ensure that Beijing’s move to put India in a dock either on cooked-up charges of terrorism or Kashmir are stymied.’ India kept its side of the bargain when it firmly backed President Macron against the Islamic world’s backlash for his speech, following the beheading of French teacher, Samuel Paty.
The rise of China and the loosening of old alliances demand more co-ordinated action from middle powers like India and France. Nowhere are the possibilities greater than in the maritime domain. ‘France has its overseas territories Réunion, Mayotte and New Caledonia in the Indo-Pacific. France has more than 90 per cent of its large exclusive economic zone (EEZ) (nine million km²) in the region and maintains a military presence of 7,000 personnel.’ ‘It has more than US$176 billion ($228 billion) in foreign direct investment across the Indo-Pacific.’ Although, through its huge diaspora in Mauritius, India has always maintained a presence in the south-west Indian Ocean, India’s formal entry in the larger region has been facilitated by France. India joined the select group known as the Indian Ocean Commission (IOC) in March 2020 with France’s support. Set up in 1982, the IOC comprises the Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius, Réunion and the Seychelles. The Commission has China, Malta, the European Union and the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie as observers. India’s observer status in the IOC institutionalises a larger engagement in the south-western Indian Ocean. Therefore, France may yet be the greatest enabler for enhancing India’s relations with the Vanilla Islands. In March 2018, India and France signed an agreement for reciprocal logistical support between their respective armed forces and issued a “Joint Strategic Vision of India-France Co-operation in the Indian Ocean Region”. The seventeenth edition of Varuna, the France-India naval exercises, was held in May 2019. Significantly, the two navies exercised Visit, Board, Search and Seizure (VBSS) operations and conducted phase two of the exercise off Djibouti, home to (among others), French, US and Chinese military bases. India therefore needs a bold and vigorous reimagining of its relationship with France. Greater Indian diplomatic representation in France would help. India should also initiate procedures to have the Indian cities of Pondicherry and Chandannagar included as members of the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie, based on their strong French heritage.
The Way Forward
The following three initiatives suggest a way forward.
In December 2015, the Seychelles president, James Michel, announced that India would be leased a plot of land on Assumption Island, to develop a naval base. The newly-elected president, Rev. Wavel Ramkalawan, however, is adamant that this Agreement will not go ahead. In the fluid situation in Seychelles, the task for India is cut out: to iron out the bumps that relate to the Assumption Island project. It calls for adroit and nimble-footed diplomacy and requires presenting the agreement in Seychelles-centric terms. Located astride busy SLOCs, the Seychelles, like the other Vanilla Islands, is vulnerable to maritime traffic-related environmental issues. A Cape-class bulk carrier, the Japanese-owned MV Wakashio, ran aground on a reef about 900 metres off Pointe d’Esny on the south-east coast of Mauritius on 25 July 2020 and began spilling oil on 6 August, prompting the Mauritian Government to announce a state of environmental emergency. With the MV Wakashio environmental disaster fresh in the collective memories of the Vanilla Island nations, India should re-envision the Assumption island project as a “Marine Spills and Environment Protection Project”. With advance capability and training expertise in marine pollution and in laws against ship-sourced pollution, the Indian Coast Guard should be the lead agency for the project. Just as importantly, images provide powerful messages: smaller, white-hulled Coast Guard ships don’t intimidate as naval ships do. Equally, exploring Rev. Ramkalawan’s connection to the state of Bihar by having Indian representative(s) from the “right region” and of the “right denomination” could carry useful elements of soft power.
Positioned in the maritime domain as the Vanilla Islands are, nautical moorings and a certain sea mindedness are in order for the national representatives. The French statesman Georges Clemenceau famously once said, ‘La guerre! C’est une chose trop grave pour la confier à des militaires’, loosely translated as “War is too important to be left to the generals”. By bringing fresh perspectives, outsiders can address problems that stump experts. The uniqueness of the maritime services bestows on them a very distinct diplomatic role. Admiral Sergei Gorshkov stated, ‘Soviet naval seamen … feel themselves ambassadors for our country. …’ Therefore, people with suitable maritime backgrounds should be among those considered for future Indian ambassadorial appointments in the region. Such representatives will not only conduct the diplomatic functions with élan but, faced with the numerous maritime matters of the region, will be able to act with deeper understanding, incisiveness and knowledge.
Forward Presence in the South-Western Indian Ocean
David Brewster has posited, ‘Only in the Indian Ocean, does India have the upper hand. These considerations have driven the Indian Navy (IN) to adopt a strategy of building its naval capabilities near the Indian Ocean chokepoints to create an implicit threat of interdiction of China’s sea lines of communication.’ Given the volume of maritime traffic carrying commodities and oil to China that transit the chokepoints and SLOCs around the Vanilla Islands, those SLOCs and chokepoints are emerging pressure points for China. Brazil is a major source of iron ore for the hungry steel industry of China. Brazilian exports to China rose 103 per cent year-on-year in April 2020 to 16.393 million tons. This assumes added significance due to the ongoing China-Australia trade spat. According to reports, ‘Chinese importers were called in and told to stop buying the goods from Australia in an instruction accepted as an order.’ China’s imported crude oil from Africa in 2011 totalled 1.23 million barrels a day, which accounted for about 20 per cent of the China’s total imported crude oil (BP, 2012). That share had dropped to about 18 per cent by September 2020, but remains significant. Critical energy maritime traffic in and around the Mozambique Channel will increase significantly as East Africa transforms itself into a hydrocarbon hub over the next decade. For India, availing itself of emerging opportunities makes strategic sense.
India’s recalibration in order to manage China, following the China-India standoff in eastern Ladakh, makes it more receptive to other options, including those in the maritime domain. Inviting Australia to the Malabar Exercises in November 2020 constitutes a part of that narrative. The Indian Naval Strategic Publication (NSP1.2) states, ‘the IN will deploy ships and aircraft for exercising presence and conducting surveillance in our areas of maritime interest.’ The IN, therefore, should explore enhancing its Presence and Surveillance Mission (PSM) option in the chokepoints and SLOCs around the Vanilla Islands. Exercising Visit, Board, Search and Seizure (VBSS) operations in co-ordination with the national shipping line should be considered as the next logical step. The IN can exercise co-operative and opposed boarding of the merchant vessels. Future editions of the France-India Varuna exercises could be conducted in this region and be structured to include VBSS operations. To the governments and the people of the Vanilla Islands, it would indicate India’s resolve to ensure maritime governance in their region. To the international maritime community, it would indicate India’s resolve to uphold a rules-based order in the area. After the China-India Galwan Valley clashes of June 2020, writing in the Indian Express, Admiral Prakash stated that, ‘It [India] must muster all elements of its “comprehensive national power”, including the maritime, and create a strong negotiating position.’ A continuous forward presence could be one such step.
The Australia-India-Japan-US quadrilateral security dialogue, informally known as the Quad, is an initiative which aims to support a “free, open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific region”. Stephen Biegun, US Deputy Secretary of State stated, ‘Any country that seeks a free and open Indo-Pacific should be welcome to work with us (The Quad).’ Writing in The Tribune, Shyam Saran, a former Indian Foreign Secretary, notes, however, that ’The Quad, in its present loosely structured incarnation, is unlikely to serve as a credible countervailing coalition.’ As a collective pushback against China, a military edition of the Quad will inevitably emerge. For such a grouping to gain ballast, it requires the weight of more countries. France may be one such country and India may just be the enabler for France’s entry into the Quad. With French départements across the Indo-Pacific (Réunion, Mayotte, New Caledonia and French Polynesia), and with a flotilla and military elements based there, France is the quintessential Indo-Pacific resident power. France brings to the table the heft of a nuclear power, a permanent UN Security Council Membership and the soft power of a sophisticated culture. A powerful navy with ballistic missile submarines and a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier would provide formidable teeth to a rapidly militarising Quad. France already has a full-time ambassador for the Indo-Pacific. Therefore, it is hoped that, in times to come, it will be possible to have France in a Quad Plus framework. Deployments such as a French Navy Breguet Atlantique long-range maritime patrol aircraft staging through INS Baaz in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, or an Indian Navy Boeing P8-I operating out of Air Base 186 at Nouméa-La Tontouta airport in New Caledonia as part of the Quad Plus would symbolise the collective resolve of Indo-Pacific democracies.
It is most apt that Prime Minister Modi’s SAGAR vision should result in green shoots sprouting in the region where it was first envisioned. Adroit and nimble-footed statecraft, a forward presence of the Indian Navy in the south-western Indian Ocean and “Quad Plus” suggest a way forward. As well as engaging further with the Vanilla Islands, India should also step up its policy of increased engagement with France in the Indo-Pacific region.
 Arpi, C., ‘Step up pressure on Xi; bring France into Quad’, Deccan Chronicle, 22 October 2020.