Is China behind Seychelles' decision to scrap India's military base project?
India's headaches in its surroundings seem to be multiplying with each passing day. After its relationship with Maldives took a beating recently over the latter's president's excesses, it is now turn of Seychelles to leave New Delhi dejected. The archipelago in the Indian Ocean which India tried to win over to reduce its gap with China in the strategic race in South Asia and the adjoining areas has decided not to proceed with a deal with New Delhi to invest $550 million for setting up a military base in one of its islands -- Assumption, reports said.
Seychelles' President Danny Faure announced the decision earlier this month and ahead of his visit to India on June 25. He also said that the issue will not be taken up during his meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and that Seychelles will build the project by itself.
The pact, which created much uproar in Seychelles' domestic politics, was first announced when Modi made a visit to the island-nation early 2015 along with Mauritius and Sri Lanka (the trip to the Maldives was cancelled) primarily to build a counter-strategy against China's ambitions in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). The pact faced initial hurdles and former foreign secretary S Jaishankar made an urgent visit to Seychelles last year to resolve the problem. He went there again in January this year to approve the renegotiated pact.
The pact with Seychelles was first announced during Narendra Modi's visit to the strategic Indian Ocean archipelago nation in 2015. The deal faced hurdles and former Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar had to make an unannounced visit to Seychelles in October 2017 to resolve the differences. He visited the country again in January to sign the renegotiated agreement covering 20 years.
But a script similar to Nepal unfolded thereafter. There was an uproar that the Seychelles government "sold off" Assumption Island to India and even though Jaishankar's successor Vijay Gokhale went to the island-nation in May to save the agreement, he couldn't. In 2015, Jaishankar was sent to the Himalayan country to resolve the crisis that emanated from its constitutional progress and affected the relation between New Delhi and Kathmandu. With Faure now announcing Seychelles' decision to not to proceed further on the pact, South Block will now have a major worry over the growing Chinese presence in the IOR region.
India has reportedly sought clarification from the Seychelles' leadership over its move for the actual concern is not the island-state funding the project but India's ouster from it when China is cementing its foothold in the strategic region.
It is understandable that India felt being let down after three years of negotiations and also helping Seychelles to improve its own infrastructure by helping to set up a Costal Radar Surveillance system and granting the archipelago three fast-track patrol vessels and a Dornier aircraft. India is now really worried to know what Seychelles wants to do with the project it has refused to take forward with India.
Seychelles has decided against taking the project forward because of its domestic political compulsions; opposition to the idea of getting involved in India's rivalry with China in the region and also the possibility of environmental damages because of the military practices. As a sovereign country, it has every right to do whatever it feels serves its national interests.
However, for India, the risk is more.
Chinese visitors in Seychelles have increased manifold in recent years
Indian intelligence has gathered reports that the number of Chinese visitors in Seychelles have sharply risen over the last few years and the two countries have also been considering new ways of cooperation in the defence sector.
In November 2016, Deputy Chief of the Joint Staff Department at China's Central Military Commission General Wang Guanzhong went to Seychelles along with his delegates to improve their defence ties. It can be mentioned here that the defence ties between Seychelles and China have gained momentum since they signed a Memorandum of Understanding, way back in October 2004.
On the occasion, President Faure, who met the Chinese general, said: "The story of the development of Seychelles cannot be taken for granted without making reference to all the contributions from China."
In 2011, China said it would set up first military base abroad in Seychelles
In December 2011, China had announced that it would set up its first military base abroad in Seychelles seeking supplies and recuperating facilities for its naval forces.
The Indian defence ministry had then said that there was nothing wrong in China's action for it seemed to Beijing's efforts to deal with piracy in the IOR. It was the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance which was in power in New Delhi then.
Chinese military analysts later said that the plan to set up the facility did not mean setting up a military base. It repeatedly reaffirmed its policy of not setting up military bases abroad and said the policy would never change. However, Beijing went on to open its first military base abroad in August 2017 in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa.
India was eyeing its own facility in Seychelles, located 2,323 kilometres from Djibouti but now, the IOR archipelago's decision has put its plan in a complete jeopardy. India's plan to repeat its ploy of 'countering Gwadar by Chabahar' in IOR has hit a wall and it will be worth to see how the Modi government responds to this crucial blow.
Is China behind Seychelles' refusal?
Has China played a role behind Seychelles' change of attitude towards India? It certainly has played a clearer role in countries like the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Nepal besides of course Pakistan to fuel the anti-India sentiments, but it is still not so clear whether the same has been repeated in Seychelles as well.
But one thing is certain and that is the economic vulnerability of these democracies make them easy prey for countries like China that allure them towards development in lieu of gaining more influence there as part of its bigger plan to corner its rivals - regional or global.
The unstable political leaderships of the smaller countries also prefer shortcut routes to economic gains for their own survival and they play off one big power against another to serve their selfish interests.
After the Maldives episode, the development in Seychelles will put the Modi government under a lot of stress in handling China's ambitious plans. The stakes are high for New Delhi to prevent China turning the IOR into another South China Sea-like zone where it holds an upper edge.