How the construction of an airstrip and jetty on a remote Mauritian island points to a rising India that plans to flex its muscles as a regional superpower.
The coconut plantation
Pearly white beaches, coconut trees and an azure sea as far as the eye can see adorn two islands shaped like an exclamation mark. The northern island is long and thin, the southern island, across a 200-metre-wide (218-yard) channel, short and round.
Together, they make up Agaléga, a far-flung part of Mauritius more than 1,100km (684 miles) from the main island – a trip that takes about two days by boat.
The two islands are only about 25sq km (9.65sq miles) but, despite their small size, they may play an important role in a geopolitical game between rising superpowers and their struggle for dominance in the Indian Ocean.
Agaléga, despite its appeal, has not been discovered by droves of tourists like many others in the Indian Ocean. There are no hotels, no water bungalows, no tourist shops.
The 300 islanders mainly live off growing coconuts and catching fish, as they have for generations.
Maintenance is handled by state company Outer Island Development Corporation, which provides everything from general supplies to water, electricity and internet.
Supplies – anything from cattle to food for the local store – were brought in every three months by the same ship, the MV Trochetia.
Because there were no docking facilities big enough, the Trochetia would drop anchor some distance from the coast and wait for smaller boats to ferry out and unload it.
It did not matter because, for years, Agaléga rarely saw big ships. But in late 2019, large bulk carriers began appearing near the tip of the northern island where they would stay for months at a time.
The northern island had a short runway – about 800 metres (0.5 miles) – long enough for small propeller planes used by the Mauritian coastguard but not for cargo planes.
The construction project
On April 26, 2020, bulk carrier Glocem set sail from the eastern Indian port of Visakhapatnam, headed southwest. The ship flew a Panamanian flag but was operated by Indian company Sals Shipping, which did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.
It arrived in the Mauritian capital Port Louis about a month later, staying for a week before setting sail for Agaléga’s coastal waters.
The Glocem anchored near Agaléga for three months, cargo holds were seen open and smaller vessels sailed up to the carrier. It then went to Seychelles, closer than Mauritius, for 24 hours – the time it would take to refuel – before returning. This time, it stayed for more than 200 days, from late September 2020 until April 2021.
Glocem’s port calls between April 2020 and April 2021
|Port||Country||Entering port (UTC)||Leaving port (UTC)||Duration|
|Visakhapatnam||India||24/04/2020 04:48||25/04/2020 13:58||1 day 9 hours 10 minutes|
|Port Louis||Mauritius||27/05-2020 03:44||03/06/2020 08:45||7 days 5 hours 1 minute|
|Coastal waters of Agaléga||Mauritius||09/06/2020 07:35||13/09/2020 12:32||96 days 4 hours 57 minutes|
|Mahe Island||Seychelles||20/09/2020 04:05||21/09/2020 04:06||1 day 1 minute|
|Coastal waters of Agaléga||Mauritius||25/09/2020 00:06||25/09/2020 13:22||207 days 13 hours 16 minutes|
The Glocem was one of many ships that made the journey.
Rumours and media reports about mysterious construction on Agaléga said to be for a military base first surfaced in 2018 but both Mauritius and India deny the construction project is for military purposes and say the infrastructure is to benefit the islanders.
Between early 2019 and early 2021, Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit tracked more than 12 ships from Indian ports to Agaléga; likely part of a project the islanders fear might spell doom for their futures.
The northern island became home to hundreds of construction workers from India. They cut down trees, flattened the ground and built semi-permanent housing, including medical facilities that the islanders say are better than theirs.
In early November 2019, workers started laying down asphalt for what is taking shape as an airstrip more than three kilometres long (1.8 miles), nearly four times as long as the old runway.
The tender for the expansion was awarded to AFCONS, a major Indian construction company that builds airstrips and other large infrastructure projects.
In its 2018-2019 financial report, AFCONS mentions that the contract with the Indian Ministry of External Affairs is worth about $250m. AFCONS did not reply to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.
After 18 months of construction, a large airstrip and jetties are taking shape that experts say will be used by India as a base of military operations, part of its plans to expand its geopolitical influence in the Indian Ocean.
Geopolitical game of chess
Over the past 20 years, more countries have started looking at the Indian Ocean as a strategic zone. The region, through which some of the world’s most important shipping lanes pass, stretches from Africa in the west, to the Middle East, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh in the north and Indonesia and Australia in the east.
“More than 60 percent of the world’s oil trade travels through the region , mostly coming from the Strait of Hormuz. On top of that, both the Strait of Malacca and the Suez Canal connect the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean and the Mediterranean respectively.
“It has been a bit ignored in geopolitical discourse,” Aaditya Dave told Al Jazeera.
Dave is a research analyst at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London, focusing on maritime security in the Indo-Pacific and security issues in the region.
“Freedom of navigation through this territory is important for a number of different countries for their energy security, as well as for economic prosperity,” he added.
Over the last 50 years, the region has mostly been dominated by India, France, the US and the UK, Dave explained.
“India for long has been the predominant actor, particularly around its own neighbourhood. Other countries that are active in the region have been France, which has … Reunion Island, as well as the United States, which has a military base on Diego Garcia.”
The Diego Garcia base, a joint military facility between the US and UK, is on an eponymous island that is officially part of the Chagos Archipelago, which is administered by the UK despite the UN’s special international maritime court ruling that it belongs to Mauritius.
Diego Garcia is by far the biggest of the 58 small islands.
Over recent years, other actors have wanted to play a role in the region, most notably China, Australia and Japan. “As China grows in importance as an economic and security actor, it is naturally going to enter the Indian Ocean,” Dave explained.
“It is an important channel of trade for China as a large portion of its imports pass through the Indian Ocean and the Straits of Malacca.”
Over the last 20 years, China has invested heavily in countries in Asia, Europe and Africa through its Belt and Road Initiative, which aims to increase its geopolitical influence.
In the Indian Ocean, it is doing something similar with the “String of Pearls”, which has seen China invest in maritime infrastructure in the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Tanzania and others.
Most of those projects are in their infancy, but China opened its first overseas military base in 2017 in Djibouti.
Greg Poling, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC, told Al Jazeera China’s plans for the Indian Ocean have refocused India’s attention.
« The rise of China, and really the pressure on two fronts, you have the land border on the Himalayas, where we saw the deadly clash in the Galwan Valley last year, and China’s emergence as a naval player in the Indian Ocean, have [just double checking that he didn’t say has here rather than have] become the strategic concern for Delhi, » Poling said.
« India National Security experts … they continue to worry about Pakistan and probably always will, but increasingly it’s China I think that keeps Indian strategists up at night. »
« India’s still a major player, but it recognises that having this new rising superpower playing in what has long been India’s back yard is potentially bad news for India’s national interests. »
So, India has been scrambling to improve its standing with countries it has long had ties with.
« India’s building radar arrays for basically free in places like Bangladesh and the Maldives and Seychelles and Sri Lanka. It’s trying to bring everybody into the new maritime fusion centre that Delhi’s built, » Poling explained, referring to an intelligence and data gathering project officially aimed at increasing security in the Indian Ocean.
« In a sense, [it’s] trying to reinforce the idea that it’s India that provides public goods in the Indian Ocean. »
India has also become part of a loose cooperative organisation – the Quad – with the US, Australia and Japan, to coordinate on matters like maritime security and disaster response.
RUSI’s Dave said although the Quad has been referred to as an Asian NATO formed in response to China’s move into the Indian Ocean, it is far more informal.
“It is not a hard security alliance,” he said, “There has not been an official charter or anything. It remains ambiguous.”
India has also started investing more in small Indian Ocean nations. Some were basic foreign investments such as port expansion, while others were more directly related to India’s geopolitical aspirations.
An example was India’s heavy investment in the regional coastal radar systems, with stations in Seychelles, the Maldives, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Mauritius .
“From India’s perspective, these are very important … partnerships. India has longstanding defence and security relationships with all of these countries,” Dave explained.
“India has seen itself as a security provider in the Indian Ocean region,” he continued.
Of course, the countries hosting the radars also benefit, as they can keep a closer eye on piracy, illegal fishing and smuggling operations that might take place in their waters.
India has for years been searching for a location for a military base. A plan to build one in Seychelles fell through after the country’s political opposition blocked it.
Luckily for India, it could look to Mauritius and its remote, almost empty island of Agaléga.
‘A perfect spot for a military base’
Agaléga’s strategic location and its potential as a military outpost have been discussed for decades.
In 1975, two diplomatic cables from the UK spoke of possible Soviet interest in buying the island to build a base. Although those cables, released by WikiLeaks , acknowledge there was no evidence the USSR planned to buy Agaléga, they show it has long been considered a possible location.
More than 30 years later, in 2006, the CIA wrote an internal memo regarding Indian interest in Agaléga. By then, India was a nascent superpower and was, according to the CIA, heavily influential in Mauritius .
“The Mauritian public seems to accept that India can have its way as long as the islands remain Mauritian. This is indicative of Mauritius, [sic] willing subordination to India which is its most important foreign partner,” the cable read.
It went on to say that, although Mauritian officials denied plans to cede the islands to India, they used cautious wording that “might indicate that there is more to these reports that [sic] the government has admitted”.
According to Samuel Bashfield, research officer at the Australian National University focusing on Indian Ocean strategic and geopolitical issues, it would come as no surprise if India is developing Agaléga as a military asset.
“It is quite a small island, but its location is absolutely prime,” Bashfield told Al Jazeera.
“The southwest Indian Ocean is an area where it’s important for India to have areas where their aircraft can support their ships, and also … areas it can use as launching pads for operations.
“Geographically it’s in a fantastic spot, being in the central ocean, but also on that southwestern side,” he added, referring to its proximity to the Mozambique Channel, which sees a lot of international shipping.
“As an addition to India’s other points that it can operate from, it’s incredibly important.”
After that 2006 CIA cable, the relationship between India and Mauritius grew even closer. Mauritius, where the vast majority of the population is of Indian ancestry, became more dependent on India for investments and financial support, leading to a 2015 Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in which Agaléga was one of the focal points.
The two countries agreed on “setting up and upgradation of infrastructure for improving sea and air connectivity at the Outer Island of Mauritius which will go a long way in ameliorating the condition of the inhabitants of this remote Island.”
“These facilities will enhance the capabilities of the Mauritian Defence Forces in safeguarding their interests in the Outer Island.”
As luck would have it, an airstrip and large jetty were exactly the two projects between India and Seychelles that fell through that year.
To date, the airstrip on Agaléga has been predominantly used by the Mauritian coastguard’s three propeller planes – the only aircraft capable of landing on it.
Now, its new Indian-built airstrip will be about the same length as the runway on the main island of Mauritius, which handles nearly four million passengers each year.
Theoretically, the whole population of Agaléga could get on an Airbus A380 – the world’s largest passenger aeroplane – and take off from their island’s new runway .
“It will be much easier to get supplies, much easier to travel between Mauritius and Agaléga using these new facilities, but certainly that’s not the purpose,” Bashfield explained.
“The purpose … is allowing the Indian military, and also the Mauritian coastguard, to have access and to be able to operate out of this area.”
There are no public government documents from either Mauritius or India that state the island will be used by the Indian military, or in what capacity.
The only indication India will be using the island for its operations came in 2018 when Mauritian Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth confirmed to the Financial Times newspaper that: “India would be allowed to utilise the facilities in Agaléga subject to prior notification from the competent authorities of Mauritius.”
In May, Jugnauth was asked about the construction during a session in Parliament. He denied there was an agreement with India to build a military base on Agaléga.
But Abhishek Mishra, a researcher at New Delhi-based think-tank Observer Research Foundation (ORF) who regularly speaks to people in the Indian Navy and government, says that behind the public denials, India’s plans for Agaléga are clear.
« When you interact with former navy personnel, current and serving ministry officials, then you get an idea of the direction this is heading, » Mishra told Al Jazeera.
“It’s an intelligence facility for India to stage air and naval presence in order to increase surveillance in the wider southwest Indian Ocean and Mozambique Channel,” he continued.
« It will act as a crucial node in expanding India’s footprint in the region, provide a useful location for communication and electronic intelligence collection. The base will be used for the berthing of our ships, the runway will be mostly used for our P-8I aircraft.”
In 2009, India bought eight P-8I Poseidon patrol aircraft from the US, military versions of the Boeing 737 used for long-range reconnaissance, anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare missions.
Since then, India has made plans to buy 10 more and last year it used one in a joint patrol mission with the French navy over the Indian Ocean .
In mid-July, India received its 10th P-8I.
Having a base for intelligence gathering in the southwest Indian Ocean will increase India’s capabilities exponentially, Mishra explained.
« If we (India) have a logistics or communications facility in such a strategically located region, that will not just help us to get an overall sense of the picture of emerging maritime security architecture in the region, it will also help us keep track of developments in the Mozambique Channel or the Cape of Good Hope. »
The Chagos connection
The secrecy from both the Mauritian and Indian governments surrounding the – likely military – construction on Agaléga has raised a few eyebrows in Mauritius, as the only public document about the project is the 2015 MoU.
This has led Agaléens to fear that they might become victims of a geopolitical game of chess and eventually be forced off the islands.
They point to what they say are efforts by the Mauritian government to make it harder to live on the islands. For instance, inhabitants say they have been forbidden to bring cement to the island, preventing them from doing their own construction.
Other examples include the alleged choking of internet speeds, high school students being forced to take their exams on the main island and Agaléga not having enough medical facilities for pregnant women to safely give birth there.
In November 2020, the government announced a plan to require a $5,400 bank guarantee from Mauritians travelling to Agaléga, allegedly to cover any medical emergencies. The plan was quickly put on hold after protests from people who wanted to visit family on the island but were unable to because of the fee.
Mauritian government officials have repeatedly avoided answering questions by opposition members and Agaléens about the project, raising suspicions about intentions.
Another concern was that the Mauritian government failed to have an environmental impact assessment done for the project, raising even more questions about the purpose.
When asked about that assessment by Al Jazeera, the Mauritian government denied it needed one for this project, despite the government website stating that it is mandatory to have them done when building jetties or runways.
All this has led Agaléens to see similarities with another Mauritian island – Diego Garcia.
In the 1960s, the UK, Mauritius’s colonial ruler at the time, turned Diego Garcia into a military base and leased it to the US in a secret deal.
The base still exists and is part of the longstanding dispute between the UK and Mauritius over Chagos. After the UN maritime court ruled the UK has no sovereignty over the islands, the UK said it would only return them when they no longer serve defence purposes.
When Diego Garcia was turned into a base, the people living there were forcibly expelled, a fate the people of Agaléga now fear as well.
“It’s been three years since the construction of the airport [and] jetty began on Agaléga. Since then, everything has changed,” Arnaud Poulay, who lives on Agaléga, told Al Jazeera.
“We do need a port because it was dangerous, the way we used to work, with small boats going back and forth to disembark,” he said.
“But today, no Agaléens are being trained to work on the new port, so it’s clear that it will be Indian workers who will be employed,” he said.
“Our kids, our youth who are unemployed, are not being trained. Why not? That would have been better… because what they are doing is not development but destruction.”
His brother, Franco Poulay, told Al Jazeera that Agaléens have been requesting a hospital for years and that a better runway would be welcome for medical emergencies.
“We asked for an airport that would be enough to handle emergencies, to save lives,” he said. “However, when we see this airport, we are worried.”
Franco also described seeing Indian military roaming around Agaléga.
“A couple of military officers come and go; they are the ones monitoring the works. They are showing they are in charge by … administrating the island, issuing their own orders, such as deciding on disembarkation of ships, on works being carried out by the AFCON workers.”
“They are showing us … that the military would be the ones in control of the administration of the island,” he said.
Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit could only verify that Mauritian authorities visited the island.
Experts are sceptical about the likelihood of islanders being forcibly removed.
“On the issue of the Chagos Islands, India has sided with Mauritius, so it seems relatively unlikely that India would undertake a similar operation on [Agaléga],” RUSI’s Dave said.
His comments were echoed by Samuel Bashfield, who said it is common for countries to allow foreign militaries on their territory.
“That doesn’t mean that they’re handing over the island or … giving up sovereignty. It means that they have an agreement that they’re allowing the Indian military to come in to build the facilities and to use them in the future.”
And there is some evidence that Mauritius does not plan to remove the islanders. In May 2020, after construction had begun on the runway, the Mauritian government posted several tenders for the expansion of civilian infrastructure on Agaléga: a medical dispensary, housing, a fish landing station and several other facilities clearly for civilian use.
But despite the planned expansion of facilities on the island, neither Mauritius nor India has stated exactly what part a military force – either the Mauritian coastguard or the Indian navy – will play in the future of the island.
According to ORF’s Mishra, there are two main reasons neither country has spoken openly.
The first is optics: « From an Indian perspective, we cannot be seen as someone who is supporting militarisation of our region. We do not want to be seen as someone who does not respect transparency or … sovereignty. »
Second, is simply what governments always do when it comes to their military operations, namely keeping adversaries in the dark.
« Issues of sovereignty and all, that is the main reason we can’t outrightly call it either a military base or a military facility. All these terminologies… are all matters of national security. »
For the people of Agaléga, it is that secrecy, from India but more importantly from their own government, that makes them wary of government promises that they have nothing to worry about. In May this year, when questions were asked in the Mauritian parliament, Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth denied that anything fishy was going on in Agaléga.
They feel what they see on the island every day does not match what they are being told.
Being left in the dark at the start of the project makes them feel they are not being included in decisions about what happens to the island they call home.
But, as Franco Poulay told Al Jazeera, they do not plan on leaving.
« They should not think that we will accept to become like Diego Garcia… We will fight back until the end, we won’t lose because we are fighting for the truth, » Poulay said.
« It’s a crime against humanity, a crime against our kids of tomorrow and we will not submit and accept [it].
« Agaléens are not afraid. «
The Investigative Unit contacted all those involved in this investigation.
The Mauritian government restated its position that there is “no agreement between Mauritius and India to set up a military a base in Agaléga”.
It added that it used the term “military base” to mean “a facility owned and operated by, or for, the military for sheltering of military equipment and personnel, on a permanent basis and for military operations”.
It stated that construction work on Agaléga is designed to improve “the inadequate infrastructure facilities” on the island, which will remain “under the control of the Mauritian authorities and any use thereof by any foreign country will be subject to the approval of the Government of Mauritius.”
India’s Ministry of Defence and Ministry of External Affairs did not respond to our request for comment.