A Fresh Challenge for India

John Price (Ambassador to Mauritius, Seychelles and Comoros, 2002-2005)

Op-Ed as it appeared in the December 15, 2011 issue of The Tribune (India)

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China continues to plan and execute its strategic projects in different parts of Asia and elsewhere to expand its area of influence as a major world power. The latest is its military base in Seychelles, ostensibly established following a request from the government of this tiny island nation. It is China’s first overseas base of its kind, which is linked to its first aircraft carrier to be launched soon. The Chinese military presence in Seychelles should also be seen against the backdrop of Beijing’s anti-sea piracy operations going to begin shortly along with Thailand and Myanmar. The Chinese explanation is that it has gone ahead with its Seychelles project because it needed “safe navigation” facilities in the Indian Ocean region. China has such refuelling facilities in Oman and Yemen, too.

But New Delhi has reasons to feel disturbed as Seychelles, not far away from India, also has a US drone base. Besides Seychelles, the US has a major military base in Diego Garcia. Earlier, it was the US which was accused of contributing to the militarisation of the Indian Ocean region. Now China has started playing the same role. China’s activities in the region will be more visible now as, besides its Seychelles base, it has signed a contract with the UN-backed International Seabed Authority for the exploration of polymetallic sulphide ore deposits in the Indian Ocean for 15 years.

It is not only India but Japan and Vietnam will also be closely watching China’s moves to gain considerable naval strength in the region. Vietnam cannot take the development kindly as China unfairly protested against the recent pact that India signed with Vietnam for the exploration of gas and oil in the South China Sea. For India, the establishment of China’s military base in Seychelles appears to be linked to its strategy of having a string of pearls around India. But for countries like Vietnam, Singapore and the others in the ASEAN grouping, it is part of Chinese over-assertiveness to make them realise that they must learn to live with Chinese dominance in the region. These countries are looking towards India to play its rightful balancing role. India must not let them down.

~ It Should Be No Surprise ~

As noted in my book “When the White House Calls”, on February 6, 2007, Sir James Mancham, former president of the Republic of Seychelles, met with United Press International in Mahe, just before President Hu Jintao of the Republic of China made his official visit to the island nation. China has a growing interest, both economically and militarily, in sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian Ocean region, as reflected in Mancham’s remarks:

“President Hu Jintao of the People’s Republic of China will pay an official state visit to the islands after a tour of eight African countries. For China, each country Hu visits will be to reaffirm negotiations for raw materials, energy supplies, aid assistance, debts forgiveness, and negotiations, which is aimed to secure China’s quest for global positioning. China needs a military base in the Indian Ocean. It is considered that the Seychelles has the best global position for her need in Africa and the Indian Ocean region.”

During Hu Jintao’s visit he established some far reaching economic agreements and left $20 million to show his good faith, to this small island nation of 80,000 inhabitants. He also promised follow-up meetings with some of his top ministers and military leaders to further solidify their agreements.

In September 2007, Colonel Leopold Payet of the Seychelles People’s Defense Forces went to Beijing to come to an agreement on behalf of his government for more China-Seychelles military cooperation in the Indian Ocean.

Seychelles are entering a new day on the global stage, which hopefully after a long chapter under autocratic rule, since the 1977 Marxist coup d’ etat, will not now put this fledgling democracy under the domination of China.

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