With the Mauritius Telecom (MT) saga now snowballing into a geopolitical issue and Mauritian ministers talking about Huawei and China being the problem, l’express talks to the former Member of Parliament, economist and president of the Mauritius-China Friendship Association about why he thinks the Mauritian government is dragging the country into a geopolitical problem. And why Mauritius is acting against its own national interest...
The problem started with MT’s ex-CEO Sherry Singh alleging that the government allowed an Indian team to eventually ‘sniff’ Mauritian Internet traffic on the SAFE cable. But since then, both the Indian press and some Mauritian ministers have started talking publicly about Huawei and China. What is your impression of the strange turn this saga seems to have taken?
We have to separate the wheat from the chaff in this saga. What has taken place is simple: a government has called or allowed a foreign country to carry out an intervention on a strategic asset, important for our national interest, in a way that is plainly illegal. The reasons for this are still obscure and it’s not clear whether it was the Mauritian Prime Minister (PM) or the Indian PM who demanded the intervention. If there was a problem with the SAFE cable and you suspected something fishy was going on, you come out on this in a way that would clear the issue. You would talk to the consortium that owns the SAFE cable and inform them of the problem. Then you would ask your own operator, MT, to investigate the matter and come up with a report. If there is still a problem that you cannot handle, only then you can approach an outside party.
This is what any sovereign state would do. Instead, what have we seen? The PM asked a specific foreign power to send a foreign expert team picked by that same foreign power and working under a national security advisor also picked by that same foreign power. To do what? What were the scope and terms of this mission? But when it came out that access for the mission was refused by MT, you hear the PM asking himself what he will tell the Indian PM, as if he is answerable to him. This is quite a shocking admission of duteous subordination after 54 years of independence. Any rational and logical observer would look at this and conclude that Mauritius has given up its right to sovereign decision-making.
Since then, the Indian press has started talking about Sherry Singh’s proximity to Huawei. MT has announced that it will investigate contracts given out under the x-CEO’s tenure. And a number of ministers here are now repeating the narrative that Singh was Huawei’s man. How credible is this narrative?
Now that the cat is out of the bag, due to Sherry Singh, the government is trying to limit the damage. After weeks of silence, they waited until these stories were planted in the Indian press to give them a lead. So right now, the government’s response is diverted from the accusations of subservience and high treason towards an easy target, China. But its new mantra sung from the same song sheet from India makes no sense. The first line is that China is spying everywhere here. But then, why only in Baie-du-Jacotet? Is China the only spy and is it our enemy? The second is that Huawei is a suspect backdoor sniffer for China as in many other countries. Where has this been proved anywhere so far? On the contrary, it was the government itself that invited Huawei into Mauritius since 2006. It was proud that Huawei set up its regional headquarters in Mauritius and the PM himself went to China to invite Huawei to invest more. And the third one is that Huawei is not credible and reliable, and we cannot depend on a single supplier for our ICT. How is this related to the so-called survey in question at Baie-du-Jacotet, when it is known that no Huawei equipment was used in the SAFE cable?
It certainly does not explain why the government decided to guarantee the loans of MT for the Safe City project or its exemption from the Data Protection Act. Or why the government itself argued that the Safe City project was in the national interest.
Exactly. So now they divert attention on the messenger Sherry Singh rather than on his message and try to demolish his credibility. But then, you had handpicked Sherry Singh to put as CEO of MT and you have a board that is under the PMO’s ultimate control, with a powerful secretary to cabinet and home affairs as chairman, and as directors, an experienced financial secretary who had sat on almost all major SOE boards, and the solicitor general, who looks at all the fine prints of all legal agreements signed by MT. Whatever major procurement decisions taken by Sherry Singh as CEO in favour of Huawei could not have been made without the knowledge and approval of the board or its chairman. Or even the PMO for that matter. So, it’s an own goal on government itself to vilify Huawei or China through Sherry Singh.
Another argument being used nowadays is that India has done a lot for Mauritius and that there is nothing sinister in the ‘intervention’ at Baie-du-Jacotet. How credible is that argument?
We should not look at this emotionally, but just based on the facts. All countries have their own interests; there are no free lunches anywhere. So let us compare the relationship that Mauritius has with both China and India and compare them based on facts. Mauritius has had a relationship with China since independence. When Mauritius wanted to build an airport, the World Bank, the excolonial masters, did not want to fund it, China gave an interest-free loan just after Mauritian independence. China has kept providing financial assistance, grants and it has written off a lot of these loans. Each time the PM has gone to China, Beijing has always made an effort to give something in return and brought out a big chequebook.
Whenever Mauritius has had problems securing financing for projects, China has stepped in, whether it was Jeetoo and Candos hospitals, Anjalay Sports complex, Cote-d’Or Stadium, the new airport, or Bagatelle dam. Mauritius could have secured commercial loans, but China always funded them with concessional loans. Secondly, whenever China has given anything, it has been based on mutual benefit and non-interference in domestic matters. The only thing they ask for in return is to recognize the One-China principle. Thirdly, when they fund a project, they do not insist on naming it after their own leaders, they don’t ask that you build a Zhou Enlai dam, a Mao Tse-Tung hospital or a Deng Xiaoping stadium. It’s for your own use and benefit. China has done so much, where is the gratitude for that?
India has given a lot too, to be fair.
India has also given a lot, for sure. But there is no free lunch either side. India dragged its feet for years to sign the CECPA and never made any concessions on that. But immediately after China signed a free trade agreement with Mauritius, India was suddenly ready to sign the CECPA. Where is the sincerity in that? India has always controlled our coast guard and maritime surveillance, but what has been the benefit of all that? Our fish resources continue to be depleted and during Wakashio, why did we have to run to Reunion Island for help?
India has funded projects like the ENT hospital, the new Supreme Court building, a cancer hospital and even taken over Chinese offers for a new national library and the arts centre, but we had to pay a heavy price in terms of revising the double taxation avoidance agreement, which accounts for 10 per cent of our GDP, and is a key element in Mauritius wanting to become a financial gateway to Africa. Let us remember that when India offered grants in return for revising the DTAA in the past, both Sithanen and Ramgoolam said they had rejected the paltry offers. The other huge cost we have paid is now Agalega.
So, everything has been in return for something. The worst thing is that India has surely insisted that Mauritius does not sign up to the Belt and Road Initiative. Countries out of the way of the Silk Road such as Nigeria, Peru and Barbados all wanted to be a part of it. But Mauritius no, it was invited to join in, but it has refused and has ended up depriving itself of financial assistance from China and other opportunities under the BRI. Is this not against the national interest of Mauritius?
Another problem is that of having justified the ‘survey’ at Baie-du-Jacotet in terms of preventing a ‘national security issue’ and then talking of Huawei and China; by using such language, are we making enemies out of China?
By having two senior ministers – Hurreeram and the Attorney General – to repeat a story being floated in India, the PM is clearly putting himself in a battle between India and China, which does not concern Mauritius. One aspect of this is toeing the Indian line, but now by having two senior cabinet ministers going around talking in this way, we are importing a foreign battle into our waters, which is totally reckless.
The US has long been on the offensive against Huawei. And so far, it’s only been close US allies that have pushed Huawei out of their markets. By targeting Huawei openly in this way, is Mauritius positioning itself as one of the few anti-China countries in Africa?
This is in effect what the Mauritian government is doing, and this will not be without consequence. By targeting Huawei openly and China indirectly, the Mauritian government is trying to be more royalist than the king. This is typical childishness and immaturity. If Mauritius has evidence that Huawei is doing something wrong, then ok. But it has no proof; it is just repeating Indian newspaper stories and reacting according to that. This is highly irresponsible. Now with this and Agalega, if tomorrow there is a conflict, will we not be targeted by China? Is this not putting our national interests in danger?
Huawei is being targeted by the US not just because of geopolitical concerns, but also because there is a commercial logic to that. They don’t want Huawei to dominate the global 5G market and in places like Europe, they want this to be headed by firms like Ericsson and Nokia. Do you think the Mauritian government is aware that this is a complex situation with both geopolitical and commercial aspects to it?
This commercial aspect is the main issue. What the Mauritian government is or is not aware of is difficult to say because they seem to be acting against their own interests. Right now, we are in a new Cold War 2.0 because the US can no longer act as a punitive global ‘gabelou’ and hegemonic power and it is being challenged by a confident, assertive, smart China in all spheres, trade, economy, technology, military.
Huawei runs 70 per cent of 4G systems in Africa. By openly targeting Huawei and China in this way, is Mauritius turning itself into an outlier within Africa?
The Africans have an old wise saying: when elephants fight, the grass get trampled. They are watching and not taking sides. A lot of African states have been viewing Mauritius as a stellar example to emulate, but lately they are acting as strategic competitors and even revising their DTAAs with Mauritius because they see that Mauritius is just trying to extract benefits for itself. A one-way traffic. And secondly, the Mauritian attitude towards Africa has always been very condescending if only you consider our participation at African summits and the level of our few missions there…
… Africa has always been seen as a punishment posting within the foreign ministry.
Yes. African states are not very impressed with Mauritian diplomacy, and they want to look after their own interests first. Even vis à vis the US or France, they are not taking lectures any more on human rights, democracy, intellectual property protection, climate accord, etc. They want to know what there is for them in terms of trade facilities, financial packages for infrastructure or immigration policy. They can compare with China and want to see the money put where the mouth is, without meddling in their domestic policies. If in this new world order, Mauritius now wants to turn itself into a ‘little India’, then this will not go unnoticed within Africa either.
Let’s get back to Huawei and India. If it’s true that the Indians suspected Huawei and China of spying in Mauritius, they say the same things about Huawei in India too. But so far, the only concrete thing they have accused Huawei of is repatriating too much profit out of India and depriving it of tax revenue. So, if the Indians have had trouble proving Huawei spying within India, then how come the Mauritian government has been so eager to accept that argument for Mauritius?
This is because some self-serving Mauritian politicians are brain-dead. There is this old, narrow view amongst the top Mauritian political elite that they need India to protect them and their privileges, that things can be volatile in our fragile social fabric, so that if there is any threat to their power, then the only safeguard they have for staying in power is India. Not for the country, not even for their community, but only for their own individual political survival. They know about the Lal Dora episode in the past and how Indira Gandhi through former Indian ambassador Prem Singh was standing by. This is where they still live, in the past. India was even divided then about intervention; and today, it is not even the same India as before. Today if they already have Agalega, then like the lease of Diego was renewed without ado, your importance for India goes down. Just see how the US and the UK are treating our leaders.
You mean that India is now a big player in a geopolitical rivalry in the region with China; such thinking now comes at a cost?
Exactly. We must understand that the basic rivalry today is between the US and China. China does not see India as a competitor because its economy is just one-fifth the size of that of China. India is being pushed into an anti-China line by the US. India can buy into that logic, but what is the sense of importing this problem here in Mauritius?
Mauritius and its neighbours in the region have always tried to draw a sharp distinction between India as a security partner and China as an economic partner. Mauritius tried doing that, especially after 2007. Do you see what is happening now as evidence that Mauritius has either failed in that strategy or has abandoned it? How do you think our neighbours are seeing this?
It is apparent that we have abandoned that, now we have positioned ourselves totally in India’s camp. Whatever India says, the Mauritian government “just do it”, as Nike motto goes. Speaking of our neighbours, the president of Seychelles is already poking fun at Mauritius, not just about our parliament but also about the way our economy is being run. And what do you think bigger neighbours think?
What is it we should be doing, in your view?
Look at the policy of ASEAN countries, they keep good relations with everybody and do business with everybody. They do not malign or take side with anybody. Like the ASEAN states, we should base our policies on preserving our sovereignty, keeping our national interests as a priority and no compromise on our territorial integrity.