Seychelles President Danny Faure’s announcement ahead of his India visit on June 25 that the joint development of a strategically-important naval base on Assumption Island stands abandoned is a major setback to India in the plans to get a foothold in the Indian Ocean.
President Faure told his country’s parliament last week that he will not take up the deal with India for ratification. The deal had been touted as a major breakthrough by India in its efforts to counter Chinese hegemony when it was mooted on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s official visit to Seychelles in 2015.
Evidently, while paying lip service to improving relations with India, China has been systematically weakening the Indian hold on Indian Ocean coastal states. After successes in Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Maldives, it is now the turn of Seychelles in expanding the Chinese footprint.
The Indo-Seychelles deal’s abandonment through vociferous resistance from the country’s opposition bears the hint of a Chinese gameplan to sabotage India’s entry into the power games in the Indian Ocean in which Beijing brooks no challenge.
Wavell John Charles Ramkalawan, the leader of Opposition of Seychelles, had said after a visit to New Delhi in January last that he would oppose the deal. India’s efforts to bring him on board clearly failed to make an impact on him or perhaps the Chinese pressure on him and on the President was too much for them to withstand.
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Significantly, a revised agreement for the development of the Assumption island to alleviate political concerns within the Indian Ocean nation over ownership and use of the facility that India will develop was signed in January but despite that, the project is being abandoned.
President Faure is apparently coming to India to explain the compulsions for him to backtrack on the deal which had been agreed to in principle three years ago though he has said that there would be no discussion on that during his visit.
Tying up loose ends
Meanwhile, India and France joined hands in March last for strategic partnership in the western part of the Indian Ocean region. The two countries share a logistic service agreement to support each other’s naval forces in the Indian Ocean Region. France like India has strategic interests in Seychelles and recently engaged with Faure to expand French-Seychelles strategic ties.
India is now working on a tripartite agreement between Seychelles, France and itself to take the partnership forward by tying up loose ends. Evidently, Faure’s visit to New Delhi will afford an opportunity to discuss this possibility too.
The earlier proposed joint project, the scrapping of which is yet to be officially communicated to the Indian defence establishment, entailed investment of $550 million in the development of an airstrip, jetty and housing infrastructure for the Seychelles Coast Guard in Assumption Island. Whether any of the components of the abandoned project would still be on the to-do list is unclear at this stage.
What is clear, however, is that the project for joint control of a strategic naval base will not go through. How much of a hand China has in its abandonment is not quite clear. The Seychelles opposition has made it into a sovereignty issue, casting doubts on India’s intentions.
The revised agreement which too now stands abandoned was to allow the island to be used by the Seychelles Coast Guard as a forward base to patrol a section of its economic zone which it is lightly watched right now and is plagued by illegal fishing and drug running.
The agreement clause allows for other countries to use the facilities “subject to the concurrence of both parties”.
India plans to gift a Dornier helicopter to Seychelles during its President’s visit to India from June 25.
Barring the scrapping of the joint deal, Indo-Seychelles ties are strong indeed. In 2017, 11 Indian naval ships visited Seychelles and eight have visited Seychelles so far this year. Half of Seychelles’ military assets have been provided by India, which has trained around 70 per cent of Seychelles’ military personnel.