The project of making Port-Louis into a maritime hub to service the continent of Africa is certainly a provocative and alluring prospect. It immediately conveys hope and brightens the horizon of every Mauritian, young and not so young. There is talk the island will become a second Singapore in the Indian Ocean Basin. Is this beautiful concept a possibility, in real terms, all things known and considered? Could it become less than a wish and brought into existence?
What we have going for us, Mauritians, is the fact most of us are hardworking people. This shows in that such a small island, after becoming independent in 1968, flourished into what we are today, within a mere 50 years. It is a feat we should all be proud of. Also, we need to recognise the key individuals who have been behind this impressive achievement, whose exceptional enterprise have contributed to bringing about a spectacular evolution. And now, we are contemplating going further, by becoming a maritime hub for Africa.
There is nothing wrong to wish Port-Louis would become a maritime hub. What is implied when the term hub is used, is TRADE. And trade is not what Governments do. Trade is the business of private and commercial companies or individuals. (…) But a key factor in this economic machine is marine transportation. The raw material has to be transported to zones where there are factories to process it.
Then, the finished products have to be transported from the industrial zones and distributed the world over where there is a demand for such products. What governments do is to set up laws and regulations, qualifying and quantifying the products imported or exported, with the intention to protect their consumers and also create national income.
It is done by levying taxes and imposing payable permits for importation or exportation of goods and products. But governments have also a good grip on the control of ships. Laws and regulations are put into place for controlling the type and condition of ships able to conduct the essential marine transportation.
Therefore, hub will inevitably also imply ships. The British have called Mauritius “The Star and Key of the Indian Ocean”. What was considered here, because of the location of our island, shipping in the South Indian Ocean Basin, could be strategically controlled, passively or restrictively. In that sense, Mauritius, when used by the Napoleonic Navy to hinder the commercial activities of the British in India, became such a calamity for the latter that they invaded the region using a very large scale military operation in 1810.
Thus, after losing control of PortLouis and Grand-Port, the French presence and commercial activities in India and in the Indian Ocean in general, simply dwindled away. But during the Second World War, Mauritius was neither the scene of any naval activity nor was it a military springboard from which critical offensive or counter measure military operations were launched. This was essentially what made it relatively easy for us to obtain our independence from the British.
To support this argument, the British are not likely to return Diego Garcia to us, just as long as it remains a strategic military base. And looking at the shape of things to come, we need to perhaps consider heading into the nominal ‘Brick Wall’ (As it is a British brick wall, it is made up of baked red bricks). But we shall keep on screaming! It makes economic sense.
Haven’t the British asked us to negotiate new terms in regard to their Brexit? Could we be holding a ‘Royal Flush’ in this poker game? Of course, we are. The new pressure from the United Nations and the international outcry about the population of Diego Garcia will see to it we come out laughing. Until we set the ball rolling again when we are in need of a new financial injection. The Mauritian therefore gets to keep his qualified specific adjective of ‘Mari Débrouillard’ with justification.
However, a new star is rising in the Indian Ocean! It has the ambition to be also the key of the Indian Ocean! This new star emits a signal which is being assessed by those who are or have been in ruling positions on this planet, as needing a close and attentive analysis: India. A large proportion of our population considers India as ‘Mother’. Quite natural. But how does India see us?
How does a country made up of over one billion individuals look at us, a tiny spot south of the equator, with 1.3 million souls and decreasing! Do they see us as the ‘Star and Key?’ Perhaps not. We did have the ‘Vigilant’. But this unit was permanently secured to Quay C in Port-Louis. We could hardly consider ourselves ‘Star and Key’ under the circumstances. And then, we get to be visited by the President of the People’s Republic of China!
Suddenly, things change. Indian Navy Ships call into Port-Louis almost every month for ‘friendly and mutually constructive activities’. We get highly subsidised NCG vessels. This is blown out with the construction and delivery of the ‘Barracuda’ and the commanding officer is Indian. Next are a series of gifts and donations of several fast ocean-going patrol vessels. Lately, the ‘Valiant’.
For this, we need a shore based management. We are sent a considerable number of highly ranked Indian Navy Officers. Open any newspaper any day, you are bound to find an Indian Navy Officer in white No.10 rig with an array of gold braided epaulettes and the Indian Navy cap badge. With the number of NCG vessels tied up in Port-Louis and otherwise, one can only conclude we are being threatened.
Now, there is cause to think we are. The drug issue is a very serious threat which needs to be brought under control immediately. An issue which has destabilised many larger countries with far more resources at their disposal than we do. Taking the necessary measures to secure our small territory is essential and the help we receive from India in this regard is more than welcome and I am certain all Mauritians are grateful and feel reassured. However, what is of real concern is the scale of the drug enterprise.
Unchecked, Mauritius will become a hub for drug trafficking and distribution. So, at this stage, the number of NCG vessels now present in Port-Louis is consistent with the threat we are likely to be exposed to, as the drug barons get richer and bolder. There is of course the issue of illegal fishing in our economic zone. We do not have the financial power to send a flotilla of NCG vessels in those zones and maintain them on location.
The actual costs in crews, fuel and logistics are exorbitant and it also is not a matter political parties put forward in their campaign promises to get elected, because most Mauritians are not aware that our economic zones are being stripped of their natural resources. Therefore, we must be grateful to India in this regard. It needs to be said also. It is the only country which assists us this way on such a scale.
Enters a new variable in the subject equation: China. On the Asian continent, India and China are these days at loggerheads and eyeing one another very suspiciously on the Kashmir border. These two nations have each the largest human populations on the planet. Very large populations are also very difficult to keep in check. Nehru understood it quite early and allowed the split of the Indian continent. Mao Tse Tung came close to cause the implosion of China, in his desperate attempt to control the population. It is therefore essential to keep the populace busy with work and keep them reasonably well fed.
As our civilisation grows and evolves into a modern and technologically advanced domain, it is quite legitimate for each person to claim the same facilities and comfort which others seem now to take for granted. On that score, India and China have a problem. It is the massively huge number of people now pressing to get their share of those facilities and comfort. To this number must be added other emerging satellite countries with large populations such as Vietnam, Cambodia, North Korea, Myanmar, Pakistan, Bangladesh, each with the potential to destabilise the two major nations if there is any uprising there.
China and India do no longer have the necessary inherent resources to feed their vast industries with raw material and fuel for its energy. Those have to be imported. China has been one step ahead and has been trading with West African countries on a very large scale for over two decades. Crude oil and raw minerals are shipped from Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Angola, Congo, to China on a scale which is now a concern for India. Because, unless India reacts and engages in the same trade and on the same scale, it will be left behind, but more disturbingly, there might not be enough of the subject resources to go round.
China not only imports raw material from West Africa. The finished products from China are shipped back and placed on the various local African markets. Thus, there exists a very busy sea lane from China to West Africa and back. And this sea lane runs right across the Indian Ocean! It is a region where, if it came to a crunch, India could intervene and stop ships loaded with raw material (crude oil and mineral ores) and grain in bulk from reaching China.
Ships from West Africa bound for China, go round Cape Agulhas (South Africa) and then head for the northern tip of Sumatra for entering the Malacca Straits, then through the Straits of Singapore and into the China Sea for the home run. The return voyage to West Africa from China is the reverse of the same sea route. This very sea lane runs next door to Mauritius!
Consider the following: We are supplied with highly subsidised (Government to Government negotiated) fuel oil products of various grades from the Mangalore Refinery and Petrochemicals Limited, India. Is there any chance India will allow ships loaded with raw material bound for China to buy HFO at a discounted price of their doing in Mauritius? Not likely, I would say! It would make sense for China to create an oil depot in Mauritius. Ships on passage from West Africa and South America or vice versa do not need a large course diversion from their planned passage to top up with fuel oil bunkers.
The oil depot could be maintained by tankers loaded with the product bound for China from West Africa, also without much deviation. But would India allow this? Not likely, I would say. Therefore, Mauritius is of greater interest to India than Agalega. The latter as an Air Base is absolutely ideal. But Mauritius has all it takes to become again a strategic point, hence ‘The Star and Key’.
On the commercial scene, I am of the opinion the prospect of seeing Port-Louis become a hub for Africa is wishful thinking. Simply, commercial ships are becoming very much larger. The modern container ship is 400 metres long and able to load and transfer 21,000 containers on one voyage to the other side of the globe. This means one ship, one crew, single logistics and running costs and above all, a single load port costs (port dues, agency fees, cargo handling and parking fees) and similarly a single discharge port costs.
…Become a naval base
A hub in Port-Louis to service West Africa or South America and China means a minimum of two ships for any service. It means two crews, double the logistics, administration and running costs, port dues and agency fees, cargo handling and parking fees in Port Louis, all of which can be bypassed if the ship continues on her voyage to her final destination. The modern commercial ship is conceived and built to undertake a specific trade on a specific route. Her capacity to carry fuel for this route has been designed accordingly.
A ship these days loads fuel from a single source and for a full return voyage. Her sophisticated modern marine diesel engines are very sensitive to low quality fuel oil (high sulphur and high abrasives) and shipping companies are extremely prudent where they source the product to be supplied to their ships. India needs to buy and import crude oil for her refineries. There is freight on the product being imported, some from as far as Mexico.
The refined product is then exported to Mauritius. Again, there is freight to be added to the value of this product delivered in Port-Louis. How could we possibly compete with Singapore which has several refineries on location and oil producing Malaysia and Indonesia on their door step? It means we would have to set up refineries on the same scale. Can we afford to go down this lane? But that is another story.
As a maritime hub, we are more likely to become a naval base and be once again ‘The Star and Key of the Indian Ocean’.