By: Raaj Nair
Madagascar, a key island nation in the south-western Indian Ocean, and traditionally a Francophone country, is reportedly keen on scaling strategic ties with India. India has historically enjoyed cordial ties with Madagascar, which is among the few remaining biodiversity hotspots of the world, but now a scene of increasing geo-political contestation in the Indian Ocean. Ties with Madagascar have been quite low key, focussing on trade, commerce and cultural contacts. It is only recently, that defence and security aspects have begun to assume a prominent place in India’s bilateral relationship with Madagascar.
Bilateral ties received a major boost in March 2018, when President Ramnath Kovind visited Antananarivo, the capital city of the island nation, for one day on March 14, on the return leg of his tour to Mauritius. The signing of a Defence Cooperation agreement during this visit marked the beginning of a new era in India’s engagement with Madagascar. Subsequently, India dispatched navy ships to provide relief assistance to Madagascar in the aftermath of cyclone Diane in 2020 and donated 1,000 tonnes of rice via the Indian Navy’s Landing Platform Dock, INS Jalashwa, in 2021. A Navy ship was also sent by India during Covid-19 (Operation SAGAR), in a role akin to a sea-ambulance, providing medical support to the island nations in the Indian Ocean, which included Madagascar. In February 2021, the Defence Minister of Madagascar, General Rakotonirina Leon Jean visited Bangalore for the Aero India 21 exhibition, where he participated in the Indian Ocean Defence Ministers Conclave hosted by his Indian counterpart Rajnath Singh. Diplomatic sources indicate that Minister Rajanth Singh has been extended an official invitation to visit Madagascar by General Rakotonirina.
Madagascar is a Least Developed Country (LDC) with poor global ranking on human development indices. It is, however, a resource rich country which is keen to engage steady partners for its national development. In the past two decades, Madagascar has been increasingly wooing China to support its developmental agenda. It has also extended a hand of friendship to India, cherishing the long presence of 20,000 strong Indian Diaspora, majorly of Gujarati origin. It has joined the International Solar Alliance at India’s request and has supported the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure, with Malagasy President Andry Rajoelina publicly praising the leadership of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in taking it forward. Early Indians came to Madagascar by the sea routes, as traders.
China too, has a historical interest in Madagascar, mainly focussing on trade and harnessing resources such as forest products, fisheries, animal products and minerals. In recent times, China has focused on geo-economic investment in Madagascar, which is known to have the sixth-largest reserves of rare earth elements. According to Reuters, in 2019, a unit of China Non-ferrous Metal Mining Group (CNMC) signed a non-binding memorandum with Singapore-listed ISR Capital that could lead to further Chinese entrenchment in rare earths projects in Madagascar. Madagascar is known to have abundant deposits of minerals such as ilmenite, graphite, limestone, gypsum, dolomite, silica, mica, titanium, quartz, gold, platinum group, silver, iron, copper, zinc, nickel, cobalt, chromite etc.
Madagascar also features as a partner nation in China’s One-Belt-One-Road (OBOR) Initiative, envisaged as a hub in the Maritime Silk Route linking Africa. Recent developments also point to growing interest of China in strengthening its defence ties with Madagascar. Colonel Wang Tao, who was the first Defence Attaché to be appointed by China in Madagascar in 2020, was recently awarded a prestigious national honour by Madagascar for his role in furthering defence and security ties. In contrast, India does not have a Defence Attaché appointed to Madagascar, and unlike China, which has posted Defence Attaches in most of its missions in Africa; the nearest Defence Attaché of India is located in distant South Africa, without formal accreditation to Madagascar.
China has donated patrol vessels to the Malagasy Navy and has been offering numerous training courses to Malagasy Defence personnel. Slowly but steadily, China has entrenched itself in the strategic establishment of Madagascar, which has found it reassuring. Given the attention being given by Beijing, speculation is rife on whether China will make future moves to establish its next military logistics presence on the lines of Djibouti, in Madagascar.
Comoros has also been talked about as an alternate location. Madagascar, with its numerous natural harbours, and deep-water ports like Antisaranana and Mahajanga, offers a more suitable geography than Comoros to create an exclusive seafront facility akin to the Chinese military base in Djibouti.
The probability of a Chinese military base taking shape in Madagascar, including the likelihood of exclusive port and aviation facilities, should ring alarm bells in New Delhi. India sees the south western Indian Ocean as a part of its extended neighbourhood, with strong political, commercial and cultural ties with Mauritius, Seychelles, Madagascar, Comoros and France. The entry of China in the maritime security equation could introduce unforeseen complications for India in ensuring the safety of its sea trade plying through the region. The international sea routes in the Southern Indian Ocean pass in proximity of Madagascar and Comoros. Domination of these sea lanes by a single powerful military actor would certainly not be a prospect that New Delhi would be happy with.
India stands to gain significantly by up scaling its defence and security ties with Madagascar. India and Madagascar are members of the Indian Ocean Regional Association and Indian Ocean Commission, which underpins their common interest in Indian Ocean security. New Delhi should not commit the blunder of spurning the overtures made by African leadership for high level engagements, which most often lead to qualitative enhancements in ties between nations. The examples of Nepal, Bangladesh and Myanmar from India’s immediate neighbourhood are stark enough to drive home the lesson that ignoring seemingly lightweight geopolitical players could have serious long-term repercussions and may take years to undo the damage to ties. A more immediate example of this is the impending visit of Chinese satellite tracking vessel Yuan Wang 5 to the port of Hambantota in Sri Lanka, purportedly for replenishment, in complete disregard to India’s security concerns about its capabilities of intelligence gathering. The realities of Chinese military power in the region are all too apparent for India to take note of.
The history of World War II notes that at one stage the German Nazis had planned to deport thousands of Jews from Europe to Madagascar, to confine them to the island nation, akin to a ghetto. It was one of the lines of thought the Nazis toyed with, towards evolving the “final solution”. It is an open question how the geopolitical destiny of Madagascar might have shaped up, if the diabolical plan had been put to action. While European politics of the previous century did not put Madagascar in the centre of world politics then, a Chinese military base in Madagascar will certainly do so in the 21st century. For India, such an eventuality may present a serious strategic challenge, and yet another lesson, that opportunities of high-level engagement lost by bureaucratic indolence can lead to astronomical negative implications.
The author is an Indian Navy veteran (Commander).
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