Talks between President Danny Faure and Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday assumes significance as India’s relations with Seychelles, the group of islands in the Indian Ocean, not far from the African coast, is of strategic importance to India. More so, with China fast spreading its wings across the Indian Ocean, with a brand-new military base in Djbouti on the Horn of Africa.
Faure began his state visit to India on Friday on the backfoot. Just days ahead of the trip, Seychelles announced it was scrapping an agreement with India on joint development of a naval base, in Assumption, one of the over 115 islands that make up the country. This is a major disappointment for India, which was hoping the military base would give it a toehold in a crucial spot on the Indian Ocean.
The agreement on Assumption was signed during Narendra Modi’s visit to Seychelles in 2015. The project was always controversial as the local population and activists protested on environmental considerations. Although the project was signed during the tenure of former president Michel, it was reworked and firmed up by former foreign secretary Jai Shankar in 2017. India was to invest $550 million for the base. Parts of the reworked deal was leaked and created a political furore on grounds that the government was
surrendering its sovereignty to India. There was no way it could get the consent of the Seychelles National Assembly.
Another shot to revive the deal was made by foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale, who also travelled to Seychelles in March this year, to try to get it moving. Finally, the government had to relent to consistent pressure and announced that the project would be dropped.
Faure also said that the Assumption Deal would not be a part of his conversation with Modi, calming fears that Delhi would foist it through the backdoor. That was the Seychelles president giving in to the mood of the people as all politicians have to.
However, Faure himself spoke of the Assumption base after talks with Modi. The visiting dignitary said that the issue came up during his conversation with the Indian PM. Though there was no talk of reviving the project at a later date, Faure said that India and Seychelles are engaged in talks on maritime security and will continue to work together keeping each other’s interest in mind.
The Assumption project will have to be abandoned for now, but Delhi wisely is not getting into a sulk over it, considering its two neighbours Maldives and Sri Lanka is welcoming China with open arms.
While Colombo continues to be good friends with India, ties with Maldives have hit rock bottom with President Abdulla Yameen, decidedly turning his back on Delhi.
Delhi is making sure that Seychelles does not move into the Chinese sphere of influence. India is extending a grant of $100 million to Seychelles to strengthen its maritime security. India is also handing over a twin-engine Donier aircraft to Seychelles for guarding its coast. This small plane is used both by the Indian Air Force and the Indian Coast Guard.
As Chinese ships and submarine are increasingly making their presence in the Indian Ocean, India is scrambling to get its act together. Modi’s visit in 2015 to Seychelles, Sri Lanka and Mauritius was to ramp up India’s maritime security in the region. In Mauritius, Modi commissioned the Indian built 1,300-tonne naval patrol vessel, the Barracuda. That was one of India’s first commercial sale of a naval vessel. It was built in the Garden Reach Shipbuilders in West Bengal and bought for $58 million by Mauritius. Modi next went to Seychelles and signed up for the Assumption naval base.
Modi’s visit to the three island nations and promotion of both the blue economy and India’s maritime strategy was seen as a major achievement. Which is why the scrapping of the Assumption deal is seen as a blow. India recently inked a deal with France for use of each other’s naval facilities with an eye to getting access to the Reunion island, the French island in the Indian Ocean.
Meanwhile, analysts point to the fact that India has not been able to counter China’s rapid advance in the region. From Gwadar in Pakistan’s Balochistan province, to Humbantota and Colombo in Sri Lanka, to the Maldives and even Bangladesh, China is everywhere.
India needs to ensure that its excellent ties with Seychelles remains intact, despite the hiccup over Assumption. Engagement with Seychelles is likely to be stepped up in the future.