The Importance of Seychelles

Seychelles is of vital geopolitical importance, and China is fighting to get an upper hand. India must not allow this.

India’s relations with Seychelles have run into rough weather following the agreement to establish a military base on Assumption Islands. That exposed fault lines leading to racial tensions between the majority community and the minority comprising people of Indian origin and Indian nationals currently resident there. Political dissensions in the country between the ruling dispensation and the opposition, particularly anti-India elements on both sides of the political divide, have come to the fore.

Seychelles has been a strategic destination for several major powers with vested interests in the region. During the Cold War, the United States had a satellite-tracking station on Mahe that performed a variety of covert tasks for the Americans,  It served as a listening post not only for the US but also China, the UK, France and the former Soviet Union, which subsequently became Russia, in the Indian Ocean Region and beyond. Port Victoria saw regular visits by naval ships belonging to major powers, and this pattern has not changed.  The geo-strategic importance of Seychelles’s location remains undiminished in contemporary times, and will become enhanced.

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India had its own reasons to look at Seychelles as an important player in pursuit of its national interests. India’s commitments to the safety, security and development of Seychelles will always be an example of friendship and cooperation. India responded to requests for financial assistance on several occasions.

In fact, Seychelles’s transition from a single party rule to multi-party democracy in the period 1991-92 is attributed to India’s wise counsel and advice, including accommodation and giving a level-playing field to the opposition parties during this period. There are many contributions made by India that burnish its credentials as true friend of Seychelles.

India’s image and visibility in Seychelles is very high as compared to others. The present anti-India campaign is unlikely to change India’s resolve to remain a steadfast ally of Seychelles. The Government of India’s decision few days back to step up development assistance by way of supply of passenger buses and other items is a reiteration of its desire to remain committed to the prosperous future of Seychelles.

Why has the relationship turned sour? The decision to allow India to build a military base on Assumption Island (part of the Aldabra Islands) as part of robust bilateral cooperation is being seen as a major irritant. The authors behind the leak of the confidential foreign office document containing the agreement, in March 2018, may be patting themselves on the back for it.  They disseminated its complete details in public domain in a selective manner, the first of which was uploaded on YouTube.  This was followed by a number of articles on YouTube containing expert analyses and assessments.

There is a professional signature behind the YouTube campaign underlining its foreign inspiration and handiwork. On February 12, the English language paper Independent  flagged the issue, and it has continued to focus on the subject. It failed to uphold the secular image of Seychelles and regrettably injected racial overtones into the already emotive issue. External forces have certainly deployed considerable resources in pursuit of their “anti-India” tirade.

The identity of the perpetrators behind the leaked document is already known. So is the modus-operandi, as also the identity of the superpower behind the entire episode. China has never disguised its penchant for strengthening its “hegemony” in this sensitive part of the Indian Ocean. A few years ago it had fueled controversy by courting Seychelles to provide facilities for an aircraft carrier group at Port Victoria in Mahe as part of its anti-piracy task force. China has exploited political and social fault lines in Seychelles to further its ambitions. Chinese “agents” in Seychelles have put Beijing’s interest ahead of their national security. They needed to study the example of Maldives, which is regretting doing China’s bidding.

People familiar with China’s machinations in countries such as Maldives, Sri Lanka and Seychelles have drawn attention to financial manipulations and exploiting local NGOs and others to do its bidding. This aspect needs to be investigated by India to ensure that members of Chinese cabal are identified and exposed in an effective manner. Seychellois politicians and others who have collaborated with the Chinese must also be dealt with suitably.

The Chinese game plan to destabilise India’s efforts in the Indian Ocean region is too transparent to be ignored. There is a requirement for India’s policy planners to think “out-of-the-box” to preempt such developments. India has to leverage its friendship with France, the local major power, to ensure that China does not repeat the “Seychelles exercise” in other capitals of the region. Japan can also be co-opted along with Australia, the US, the UK and regional countries in this region to create a strategic alliance to strengthen their interests. The recent visit of the President of France to India led to a new bilateral strategic agreement that opens several opportunities to buttress its position and regain lost grounds.

The Assumption Islands episode, though facing serious political challenges in Seychelles, should not be allowed to drift. It is an important strategic asset for India and relentless efforts are necessary to ensure that it remains on the table, and to remind its detractors that India will remain focused on it.

India has learnt lessons from developments in Maldives and Sri Lanka, where it lost carefully cultivated advantages due to political mismanagement.  The incumbent dispensation too has to ponder and deliver on this front. India has a host of options to exercise, which it must do so in a planned manner, and in the process develop responses to emerging threats and challenges to its national security.

About the author

Pratap Heblikar

Pratap Heblikar is Managing Trustee, Institute of Contemporary Studies Bangalore.