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Mauritius, Seychelles, Comoros: US boosts Indian Ocean presence amid rivalry with China

By Julian Pecquet, in Washington

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Posted on June 20, 2023 08:45

 © US Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivers remarks at the release of the 2023 Trafficking in Persons Report at the State Department in Washington, DC, US, June 15, 2023. REUTERS
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivers remarks at the release of the 2023 Trafficking in Persons Report at the State Department in Washington, DC, US, June 15, 2023. REUTERS

The US is riding the tide across the Indian Ocean, opening up embassies in several countries while paying its highest-level visit to Comoros as the island nation leads the African Union.

Earlier this month, Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Richard Verma, the third-ranking official in the State Department, wrapped up a historic visit to Mauritius, Comoros and Seychelles. In Victoria, Verma reopened the US embassy that shut its doors in 1996, marking a return to a full-time diplomatic presence after 27 years.

The foreign minister of the South Asian nation of Maldives was in Washington last week for a series of meetings with top officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, USAID Administrator Samantha Power and Deputy National Security Advisor Jon Finer. Abdulla Shahid reopened the country’s embassy in Washington on 16 June after a 15-year hiatus due to budget constraints, while his US hosts discussed “the prospective establishment of US Embassy Malé”, according to a readout from the State Department.

The visits come at a time of intensifying competition between the US and China across a strategically vital area, stretching from coastal East Africa to Western Australia, which is home to 2.7 billion people. However, the US is also increasingly concerned about a slew of other security challenges in the region, including the impact of climate change, trafficking and piracy, and illegal fishing.

“Some of those small islands are already accustomed to recent increased rivalry between India and China,” says Lauren Johnston, the China/Africa Lead at the South African Institute of International Affairs and the co-author of a 2022 study on China’s early focus on East Africa for its Belt and Road Initiative. “How will they cope with another bigger power entering the dynamic? Let’s see.”

Spending spree

Verma is the highest-ranked State Department official to visit Mauritius and Seychelles in more than 20 years. The second-generation Indian-American, who served as US ambassador to New Delhi under President Barack Obama, is also the most senior US diplomat to ever stop by Comoros. His trip was accompanied by a slew of new funding announcements:

  • In Mauritius, the deputy secretary met with President Prithivirasing Roopun and Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth as well as the secretary general of the Indian Ocean Rim Association, Salman Al Farisi. Verma took part in the ground-breaking for a new $300m US embassy compound and discussed enhancing cooperation around maritime security, sustainable tourism and the blue economy;
  • In Comoros, he met with President Azali Assoumari, who is also the rotating president of the African Union this year, to discuss five priority areas: democracy and governance; development assistance and food security; security cooperation; economic and commercial engagement; and people-to-people ties;
  • In Seychelles, Verma met with President Wavel Ramkalawan and re-opened a US embassy that closed in 1996 because of budget cuts that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.

This leaves only three countries in Africa – Comoros, Guinea-Bissau and São Tomé and Príncipe – without US embassies. Diplomatic representation for the three countries is based out of other US embassies in the region.

“The US commitment to the Indian Ocean Region includes collaboration with Comoros, Mauritius, and Seychelles to promote a safe, secure, and prosperous Western Indian Ocean region,” the State Department said in a fact sheet regarding its relationship with the Indian Ocean Rim Association and the region.

“Our commitment to partnering on maritime security is strong, as demonstrated most recently in their participation – along with 14 other countries – in US Africa Command’s 17 March Cutlass Express naval training exercise and in ongoing capacity building provided by UNODC [the UN Office on Drugs and Crime] and funded by the United States.”

Lagging investment

The rekindled US interest in African insular states has delighted some in the business community.

“The building out of the US Embassy … positions Mauritius as a recognised hub and platform for investment into Africa,” says John Félicité, the Mauritius-based director for Africa at financial services group Ocorian.

“I also believe that it is good for the USA as it demonstrates that Mauritius is being taken seriously as an international financial centre providing a platform for investment into Africa. More importantly it is a demonstration of how the USA wishes to be part of the economic development of the wider African continent.”

Others, however, await concrete evidence of US corporate interest.

“From what I see it is more a political action than a real economic one,” says Thierry Hebraud, the head of corporate and institutional banking at the Mauritius Commercial Bank, or MCB. “We see very little US private investment in our region for the time being.”

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