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S Jaishankar in Seychelles: As China shadow looms, India must quickly iron out disputes over Assumption Island

With China acquiring its first African naval base in Djibouti and mulling more overseas bases along the Indian Ocean, India is trying to counter this growing presence by engaging with Seychelles to further its development plans. New Delhi sent Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar on a visit to Seychelles on Tuesday to smooth out differences over the development of infrastructure on Assumption Island.

According to The Indian Express, there has been a sharp increase in the number of Chinese visitors in Seychelles over the last six years, ringing alarm bells in New Delhi. Seychelles and China are also exploring new ways to expand their cooperation in defence.

Former Seychelles' president James Michel with former president Pranab Mukherjee and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Reuters

Former Seychelles' president James Michel with former president Pranab Mukherjee and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Reuters

Seychelles reportedly wants to take a relook at the agreement signed between India and the island nation to build military infrastructure on Assumption Island. Jaishankar is expected to scale up India's relationship with Seychelles to a more strategic partnership and remove all hurdles in the development of New Delhi's infrastructure.

The agreement was signed during Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Seychelles in March 2015. The Indian government then bagged infrastructure development rights for two islands in the Indian Ocean region — Agalega from Mauritius and Assumption.

A plot of land on the Assumption Island was leased to India to construct its first naval base in the Indian Ocean region. Seychelles News Agency quoted Lieutenant Colonel Michael Rosette, chief of staff of the Seychelles People's Defence Forces (SPDF), as saying, "the agreement would enable the Indian government to help Seychelles through the SPDF to build military infrastructures on Assumption."

Speaking on security cooperation between the two nations, Modi said, "our security partnership is strong. It has enabled us to fulfil our shared responsibility to advance maritime security in the region. It is a privilege to be a partner of Seychelles in the development of its security capabilities."

Why is it important for India?

The Indian Express report quoted a source as saying that there are elements within the Seychelles government who have been trying to pose challenges to India's plans to develop infrastructure on Assumption Island but since it is of immense strategic significance for India, proactive voices and decision-makers must be brought on board.

The significance is for India to assume greater control in the Indian Ocean region in the face of expanding Chinese presence, specifically after the announcement of the military base at Djibouti.

The two islands – Agalega and Assumption – were considered India's strategic assets in the Indian Ocean region. According to India Today, both the islands add to an Indian listening post on Madagascar, off the coast of Africa, commissioned in 2007 to monitor activities of foreign navies in the Indian Ocean region.

A senior naval officer said that it is part of India's approach to enhance the capabilities of the Indian Ocean countries and keep out the extra regional players. Indian ships have also been active in fighting piracy in the waters around the island.

As part of the counter-piracy efforts, India also gifted two patrol vessels to Seychelles — the Tarmugli in 2006 and the Tarasa in 2014. New Delhi also hopes to draw Mauritius and Seychelles into a trilateral regional security forum comprising Sri Lanka, India and the Maldives, according to The Diplomat.

India has provided a Dornier aircraft, two Chetek helicopters (1981 vintage) and a fast attack craft to Seychelles besides training the SPDF. During his visit in Mach, Modi handed over one more Dornier aircraft to the island nation.

Assumption Island is also seen as an ideal location by the SPDF which will allow the Seychelles military to better undertake surveillance of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

The island will also help India limit China's footprint in the region. With Beijing eyeing additional overseas bases, Paksitan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and the Seychelles are the possible candidates for another Chinese facility, The Diplomat report said.

In the face of resistance from within the Seychelles government over the infrastructure development agreement, India's priority should be to engage with the island nation and counter any economic advantage that China can offer. It also needs to limit the use of Seychelles as a refuelling base for China's navy by neutralising the commercial benefit that Beijing can provide.

Updated Date: Oct 12, 2017 13:09 PM

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