India's Seychelles naval base plan hits wall: New Delhi must commit greater economic, military resources to preserve its interests

With Seychelles' opposition coalition refusing to ratify an important security pact with India, New Delhi's efforts to develop a strategically located island in Seychelles have received a severe jolt amidst China's relentless push to steadily consolidate its power in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Wavel Ramkalawan, head of the opposition coalition Linyon Demokratik Seselwa (LDS), has declared: "This deal is dead". The LDS holds a majority in the parliament of Seychelles.

This negative development indicates that India is losing ground in Seychelles as well. The Seychelles opposition's refusal comes three years after the agreement to develop Assumption Island was signed during Prime Minister Narendra Modi's landmark visit in March 2015. Development of island infrastructure is an internationally accepted euphemism for development of strategic assets.

Both America and China have many such island assets in the region. The agreement was supposed to enable India to help Seychelles build military infrastructure for the Seychelles People's Defence Forces (SPDF) on Assumption Island. The ratification would have made India's relationship with Seychelles truly strategic in its orientation.

File image of Narendra Modi during his visit to the Seychelles in 2015. PIB

File image of Narendra Modi during his visit to the Seychelles in 2015. PIB

For some inexplicable reasons or simply due to bureaucratic inefficiency on the part of Seychelles, the deal was not ratified by the Seychelles parliament during the term of the previous president, James Michel. After President Danny Faure assumed office in October 2016, discussions with India on the agreement were reopened since Seychelles wanted to take a "relook" at the agreement to build military infrastructure on Assumption Island.

The Modi government had to send then Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar on an unannounced visit to Seychelles in October 2017, as the deal had run into trouble. Jaishankar had met Faure. Differences were sorted out, and the country's Attorney-General Frank Ally was quoted as saying that 'India would be able to gain access to the facility as well as other friendly countries in the region, but it will not be used to transport or keep nuclear arms'. This official position of Seychelles' government was incorporated in the re-negotiated agreement.

The re-negotiated agreement was finally signed by Jaishankar in January this year during his Seychelles visit. The main objective of the agreement is to provide a framework for assistance to Seychelles by India, by helping enhance the military capabilities and maritime surveillance of the Seychelles Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), protection of the EEZ and the outer islands and search and rescue in the region.

Jaishankar had said in a statement: "India and Seychelles have drawn up a cooperation agenda that covers within its purview shared efforts in anti-piracy operations and enhanced EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) surveillance and monitoring to prevent intrusions by potential economic offenders indulging in illegal fishing, poaching, drug and human trafficking." Underlining the importance of the project, Faure declared that it "attests to the kinship and affinity that exists between our two countries."

Unfortunately for India, the controversy did not die with the signing of the agreement. So-called copies of the agreement were leaked online in early March, alleging that the Seychelles government had sold off Assumption Island to India. It is believed that the documents were leaked by a government insider, a day before the president called on the parliament to ratify the revised agreement. Faure had to clarify in the parliament that, "land on Assumption has not been sold or leased to the government of India… Assumption belongs to Seychelles and Seychellois."

Seychelles is an archipelago of more than 100 small islands in the Indian Ocean, off East Africa. Diplomatic ties between India and Seychelles have existed since Seychelles gained independence in 1976. With Seychelles, India enjoys close security ties as the two nations have managed to carve out a forward-looking partnership aimed at strengthening bilateral cooperation.

New Delhi has provided training and equipment for its defence forces. Two patrol boats, one interceptor and a Dornier aircraft DO-228 aircraft to Seychelles' coast guard were provided by India to carry out surveillance and anti-piracy missions. Second Dornier is likely to be handed over soon. Six coastal radar systems were also installed by India: the radar initiative is aimed at building a maritime domain awareness network across the Indian Ocean.

Various Indian naval ships have visited Seychelles as part of their anti-piracy deployment and protection of Seychelles EEZ. The warmness in India-Seychelles relationship can be demonstrated by the fact that in 1986, Air India’s secret mission had prevented then Seychelles president Albert Rene from being overthrown in a coup as Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi lent Rene his own plane to return to Seychelles from a meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement in Harare. A few months before this incident, the Indian Navy had deployed INS Vindhyagiri at the Seychelles Port of Victoria to abort another attempted coup against Rene.

Seychellois of Indian origin account for an estimated 10 percent of the total population of less than one lakh. Indian-origin Wavel John Charles Ramkalawan, Seychelles' leader of the opposition, has a powerful role in the country's political affairs. It cannot be forgotten that for the first time in Seychelles' history, the ruling party lost the 2016 parliamentary elections and the majority of seats in the house were grabbed by the opposition coalition, LDS.

Although Seychelles has a presidential form of government, the parliament has significant powers of oversight, and therefore Ramkalawan is effectively the leader of the members of parliament. With the opposition controlling the parliament, Faure knows that he needs their support. Acknowledging the opposition to the pact with India, he was quoted in a press conference: "It is therefore not proper for me to send the agreement to the Speaker when the Leader of the Opposition, who is in majority in the Assembly, has signalled he will not ratify it."

India has consistently courted Ramkalawan, as reflected in his recent trip to India, in order to participate in the meeting of parliamentarians of Indian origin. During this visit in January this year, Ramkalawan delivered a talk 'Seychelles of my dreams', which was hosted by the Indian Council of World Affairs in New Delhi. He spoke about the opportunities and challenges in his country, and the special relationship between India and Seychelles.

Underlining India's magnanimity in providing aid, he said: “Whenever we ask India for help, it doesn't look at us as a high-income country. Europe would tell us, you're a high-income country so go sort it yourself… We consider India as the main partner...India has helped us with hydrological maps and not sold to us, but given to us as gifts. And, we want the ties to go higher."

Despite this warmth towards India, it is surprising that Ramkalawan remains opposed to India's military presence in his country. During the lecture, when he was asked about reports of a naval base being planned by India in the Assumption Island, he unambiguously replied: "Seychelles would never accept any naval base of any country, be it the US or India or any other."

It is not clear whether his dislike is driven because of his actual wish for Seychelles to avoid 'Great Power rivalry' between India and China or due to political manoeuvring directed against the president.

India's natural influence in many small island nations of the Indian Ocean including Mauritius and Seychelles is an undeniable fact because of large ethnic Indian base populations. New Delhi has often acted as a security provider to these islands, including thwarting coup attempts on several occasions. India has also been the major contributor of military equipment and training to both countries.

Therefore, the nature and the scale of the influence China is seeking in these islands will certainly be different from the influence that India should have. Ideally speaking, there should not be much internal resistance to any project with India. But New Delhi has been increasingly concerned at China's expanding strategic influence and growing naval presence in the IOR, which has been listed by Indian Navy's 2015 Maritime Security Strategy as India's primary areas of maritime interest.

Though Seychelles is not yet the part of China's ambitious geopolitical project One Belt One Road (OBOR), Beijing has been pushing for Seychelles to be part of its maritime Silk Road project. It is rightly believed that military facilities in Seychelles, Mauritius and Oman can be a force multiplier for India.

It is because of this reason that during Modi's 2015 visit as part of SAGAR strategy, special plans were devised for development of two islands in the Indian Ocean – Seychelles' Assumption Island and Agalega in Mauritius – for use by the Indian military. It was a definite signal that the Indian Ocean littoral is at the heart of India's maritime policy priorities.

It needs to be mentioned that Assumption Island is located near the northern end of the Mozambique Channel. Along with the Suez Canal, the Channel is the main route for shipping between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and control over this has long been a key objective of the Indian Navy. And Agalega is located around 1,000 kilometres northeast of Madagascar. Using Agalega as a staging point can considerably help India's maritime reconnaissance efforts in the western flank of the Indian Ocean.

It is often observed that India's overcautious attitude has forced it to move slowly and underplay its strategic strengths. In fact, New Delhi's actual security role falls short of its aspirations towards a leadership role in the IOR. However, at a time when India is planning to redefine its strategic space in the 'Indo-Pacific' region, New Delhi must demonstrate greater willingness to assume the burdens that come with being a major power.

China has already begun to build a blue water navy. As Beijing, with deeper pockets, is trying to undercut New Delhi's geographical advantages in the Indian Ocean, India needs to invest greater economic and military resources to preserve its vital interests in the region and to continue to play its traditional role of regional security provider despite temporary setbacks due to political controversies. India cannot avoid acquiring its own assets in the IOR if it wants to break free from its traditional strategic preoccupations in South Asia.

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Updated Date: Mar 30, 2018 17:32:21 IST

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