- The Chinese foreign minister’s recent visit to Comoros signals the rising geopolitical importance of African island nations.
- Both China and India will continue to improve economic ties with these nations in order to develop geopolitical influence in the India Ocean, while Covid-19 diplomacy will remain important over the short term.
- These island nations will need to maintain a careful balancing act between China and India, particularly as attention turns increasingly towards security.
The Chinese foreign minister’s recent visit to Comoros signals the rising geopolitical importance of African island nations. On January 6, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi visited Comoros as part of his first overseas trip of the year, which also involved a tour of Eritrea, Kenya, the Maldives and Sri Lanka. Although Sino-Comorian relations date back to 1975, this is the first visit by a Chinese foreign minister, signifying the growing strategic importance of the island. This trip can be viewed as being part of a broader effort by China and India to strengthen ties with island nations in the Indian Ocean, including Comoros, Mauritius, Madagascar and the Seychelles.
Both China and India will continue to improve economic ties with these nations in order to develop geopolitical influence in the Indian Ocean. Over the last decade, these island nations have become increasingly reliant on imports from China and India (see chart below). During the last few years, the two Asian giants have stepped up their engagement, with high-level visits to Mauritius, Comoros and Madagascar signalling the latter’s increasing importance. Last year, Mauritius ratified free trade deals with both China (in January 2021) and India (in April). Most recently, during Wang Yi’s visit to Comoros, he announced support for the ‘Emerging Comoros Plan for 2030’ strategy and encouraged Comoros to use China’s (tariff-free) ‘green channel’ for African agricultural goods.
Island Nations Increasingly Reliant On China & India
Mauritius, Madagascar, Comoros & Seychelles - Imports By Partner, % Of Total Imports
Source: Trademap, Fitch Solutions
Covid-19 diplomacy will continue to be important to foreign policy over the short term. According to Bridge Consulting Beijing, China has sold or donated 1.6mn vaccines to Mauritius, 400,000 to Comoros and 300,000 to Madagascar. India has similarly used vaccines as a foreign policy tool, donating and selling 400,000 vaccines to Mauritius, 50,000 to Seychelles and 12,000 to Comoros and delivering food and medical supplies under India’s ‘Security And Growth For All In The Region’ maritime policy. With Covid variants emerging and boosters gradually being introduced, many developing countries will likely remain heavily dependent on this type of vaccine diplomacy for the next few years at least.
These island nations will need to maintain a careful balancing act between China and India, particularly as attention turns towards security. India has strong defence and security relationships with Mauritius and Seychelles, having supplied them with military equipment including patrol boats, a warship and military aircraft and having developed a ‘Coastal Surveillance Network’ (which includes Mauritius and Seychelles as well as Maldives, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka). Meanwhile, China has donated military equipment to Seychelles and trained Seychellois troops, while in 2021 Beijing appointed a defence attaché in Madagascar, strengthening its position in the Indian Ocean region. China and India’s growing focus on maritime policy in the Indian Ocean will gradually increase the external security risk to these island nations as they will need to carefully manage their foreign policies to balance the competing interests of Beijing and New Delhi. This balancing act can have significant domestic political implications. For example, recent years have seen Maldives’ political environment characterised by sharp divisions between pro-China and pro-India political forces.
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