India’s battle over disinformation in the Indian Ocean

Seeking to shape public opinion has long been part of diplomatic checklists the world over.

In the context of an increasingly assertive China, Australia and others have had to think much harder about their own strategic messaging throughout the region, and particularly for small island states that find themselves caught between much bigger powers.

For Australia, this dilemma has been especially stark in the Pacific, where China has sought to build influence through social media, online news and traditional media, in tandem with its agenda to build infrastructure, undersea cables and security pacts.

Similar dynamics are at play in the island states of the far western Indian Ocean. Only there, it’s India that’s fighting the public diplomacy battle in a region where it never expected to lose influence.

India has long considered itself the net security provider, and partner of choice, for the subregion. Island nations like Mauritius, Seychelles, Madagascar and Comoros are right on India’s doorstep and, some would say, within India’s sphere of influence.

So China’s growing engagement in the western Indian Ocean worries Delhi—from the Chinese military base in Djibouti, to its investment in port and telecommunications infrastructure, to embassies on every island (the only country apart from France to have such a presence), to Mauritius becoming Africa’s third clearing centre for the renminbi.

As a result, in recent years the two countries have been engaged in a tit-for-tat on the battle for influence in the Indian Ocean islands. China’s free trade agreement with Mauritius in early 2021 was swiftly followed by the announcement of India’s comprehensive economic partnership with Mauritius. India’s external affairs minister, S. Jaishankar, is also a regular visitor to the region, as was former Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi.

At the local level, the two countries’ strategies are quite different. In Mauritius, Delhi’s public diplomacy takes the shape of grassroots community engagement and big cultural projects like the Indira Gandhi Cultural Centre in Mauritius (one of the world’s largest). In contrast, China has had a clear focus on the information environment—through scholarships, funding for journalism training, and cybersecurity training at the local Huawei academy.

India is now realising it doesn’t have as firm a hold on public opinion in the western Indian Ocean as it once thought it did. It can no longer assume that it’s seen among the islands as a benign big brother, in contrast to the Chinese interlopers.

When India sought to establish a naval base on Assumption Island in Seychelles, it was probably predictable that this would ignite local opposition. Seychelles President Wavel Ramkalawan was on the record about the threat a naval base would pose to Seychelles’ sovereignty long before his 2020 election. Not even an Indian high commissioner and former chief of the Indian Army, Dalbir Singh Suhag, could shift this perception.

But India thought itself on solid ground in places like Mauritius: 70% of Mauritians are of Indian origin and India is deeply integrated into Mauritian institutions. The Mauritian prime minister’s national security adviser is an Indian secondee, as is the head of the coastguard. And when Mauritian prime minister Pravind Jugnauth’s father died in 2021, India called a national day of mourning.

Despite those deep cultural and institutional links, as well as significant economic investment, India has faced a surprising amount of public pushback in Mauritius. There’s solid public opposition to India’s development of a military base on the Mauritian island of Agalega.

But there is also a broader agenda. High-profile Indian delegations that continued to enter Mauritius despite its borders being closed during the Covid-19 pandemic were accused of bringing in the Delta variant. Jugnauth has been under fire in parliament in recent years for being too ‘pro-India’. Social media and radio commentary in the country regularly questions India’s motivations and the motivations of its diplomatic representatives.

Mauritian debate about the India relationship reached fever pitch in mid-2022 when a scandal broke implicating Delhi and Port Louis in an interception of the country’s Huawei-managed submarine cable. Mauritians worried that they were being spied on by their own government, and by India’s. And they weren’t persuaded by the Mauritian government’s claim that the interception was undertaken for national security reasons.

The Mauritian public’s interrogation of foreign engagement in their country is legitimate and important. But the lack of public discussion about China’s possible role in the affair was striking. And given the amount of news that Mauritians (and others in the region) consume via social media (especially Facebook), it would be surprising if Chinese disinformation operatives weren’t engaged on this, and other issues in the region, just as they have been in the Pacific.

India’s public diplomacy battles are happening in the context of low community awareness of how to critique online information and enormous public distrust in government.

And while India’s strategic narratives are for Delhi to manage, Australia should care about China’s role in shaping public opinion in these Indian Ocean islands. We are, after all, an Indian Ocean–facing state as much as a Pacific-facing one.

India could learn from our experience in the Pacific—for instance, our declining broadcasting presence in the South Pacific over the past decade provided an opening for China. To remedy that situation, Australia is now trying to rebuild international public broadcasting, in tandem with training to enhance Pacific island states’ resilience to misinformation.

Stronger media institutions, and greater community resilience to misinformation and disinformation, also needs to happen in the far-flung corners of the Indian Ocean. Australia won’t be the lead here. But we should have countering disinformation in small island states on our agenda for cooperation with India in the Quad, and in our trilateral cooperation with India and France (which comprises Indian Ocean islands, including Reunion). If we don’t, we risk the balance of power in the Indian Ocean changing when we aren’t looking.

This article is part of the Australia India Institute’s Defence Program undertaken with support from the Australian Department of Defence. All views expressed in this article are those of the author only.