Allegations that Pravind Jugnauth, the prime minister of Mauritius, permitted an Indian tech team to set up equipment to intercept internet data have grown into a political scandal. RAW is right in the middle of all of it. This is how RAW got involved in Mauritius snooping scandal.
Early last year, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) issued a series of alerts about the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) using internet infrastructure created by the contentious Chinese company Huawei in Mauritius to perform digital espionage against Indian and Western targets throughout the Indian Ocean, according to intelligence sources.
According to the sources, India’s National Security Advisor (NSA), Kumaresan Ilango, a former RAW officer, communicated to Mauritius its worries regarding a submarine landing site in Baie-du-Jacotet.
Sherry Singh, the CEO of Mauritius Telecom (MT), resigned just a month ago, citing orders from Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth to permit the installation of internet surveillance technology at the Baie-du-Jacotet submarine-cable station in a post-resignation interview.
With opposition parties condemning Singh of treason, Singh’s claims have exploded into a political storm that is only getting worse.
RAW allegedly wanted to install digital sniffers, which are devices that allow internet data to be collected and saved for subsequent examination.
According to sources, India has already implemented comparable equipment at Kochi, which serves as one of the landing points for the South Africa-Far East (SAFE) optical fiber submarine cable, which connects South Africa, Mauritius, the French territory of La Réunion in the Indian Ocean, India, and Malaysia.
Agaléga island, 1,120 kilometers from Port Louis, the capital of Mauritius, is one of the espionage targets on the PLA’s radar in the area. The island is being transformed into a staging point for Indian marine intelligence gathering on Chinese shipping.
According to reports, France is growing more concerned about PLA digital espionage as it bases its naval and air capabilities on the island of La Réunion.
“There was a security issue, and it was necessary to do this survey in Mauritius,” Jugnauth said earlier this month, adding that he “personally approached” Prime Minister Narendra Modi, demanding that he “send a competent team for this survey.”
In 2015, the year Sherry Singh took over as CEO of Mauritius Telecom and became a trusted Jugnauth adviser, China started to integrate itself into Mauritius’ internet infrastructure.
The Mauritius Safe City Project, a vast network of over 4,000 closed-circuit television cameras (CCTVs) connected to cloud-based technologies that enable a variety of activities, from facial recognition to tracking traffic and population movement, was proposed by Huawei that same year in an unsolicited bid.
The World Bank reports that at the time this initiative was launched, the country’s crime rates—which were never substantial to begin with—were at historic lows, despite the Mauritius government’s claims that the system was required to combat drugs and organized crime.
The drive to establish Huawei surveillance technology in Mauritius was part of a bigger initiative in which China installed comparable systems in 73 cities across 52 nations, including France, Germany, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Mexico.
The Safe City Project, which was financed by a $350 million loan from China’s Export-Import Bank to Mauritius Telecom, was executed without competitive bidding, relying on provisions that allow procurements “undertaken to protect national security or defence.”
According to scholar Roukaya Kasenally (read below), the Mauritius National Audit Office (NAO) found severe faults in the Safe City project’s contract and expenditure management. Among other things, auditors noticed that $25 million in payments were made without the support of vouchers or other documents.
Fishing for data?
Whilst embarking on the Safe City Project, Huawei was also awarded the contract to construct a 700-kilometer submarine cable that will provide high-speed data to the country’s second-largest island, Rodrigues.
The MARS undersea cable, one of several installed by Huawei in Africa, also arrives at Baie-du-Jacotet. The 15,000-kilometer, $425 million PEACE cable, which connects China to the continent via Europe, is part of Beijing’s digital push in Africa.
The British communications-intelligence organization GCHQ, in addition to the United States National Security Agency (NSA), have both been accused of tapping submarine-cable landing points in order to collect massive amounts of data for analysis.
Experts have cautioned that China is looking for identical capabilities.
Since announcing the Digital Silk Road in 2015, Beijing has progressively expanded its worldwide internet infrastructure with the assistance of technology from companies such as Huawei. According to analysts, the equipment features digital back doors that enable its intelligence services to harvest data.
In 2018, Australia prevented Huawei from engaging in a project that would have used an underwater cable to connect its networks to the Solomon Islands.
A World Bank-funded project to connect the Pacific nations of Nauru, Kiribati, and the Federated States of Micronesia to Guam, which houses large US military facilities, was canceled last year after Washington expressed security concerns.
Many suspect that the contract for this project was about to be awarded to HMN Technologies, formerly Huawei Marine Networks, a business in which Shanghai-listed Hengtong Optic-Electric Co Ltd owns a significant stake.
HMN Technologies’ $72.5 million proposal was more than 20% lower than competitor proposals from Nokia-owned Alcatel Submarine Networks (ASN) and Japan’s NEC Corporation.
A geopolitical game
China’s increasing influence in Mauritius is also connected to its legal battles with the United Kingdom – Beijing has been asking that the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean be recognized as its territory.
Despite an advisory judgment from the International Court of Justice and demands from the United Nations General Assembly, the United Kingdom has maintained sovereignty over the Chagos Islands with the US’s covert assistance.
The collection of islands includes Diego Garcia, the archipelago’s largest island, which has been leased to the US as a military post.
Though India is Mauritius’ primary strategic partner, the Bank of China opened a branch in Port Louis in 2016, accompanied by the two nations completing a free trade deal five years later.
Furthermore, Washington argues that including Mauritius in the African Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty would prevent strategic planes and submarines from utilizing Diego Garcia.
However, Mauritius, like other strategically positioned nations, feels it should receive cash from global powers desiring to retain a military presence on Mauritian territory.
Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa, for example, obtains $70 million from the US, $36 million from France, $20 million from China, $2.6 million from Italy, and unknown sums from Japan and Saudi Arabia in exchange for permitting foreign forces to be positioned on its territory.
Mauritius also loses potential money from fishing in the waters of Chagos, where the United Kingdom has established an exclusion zone.
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