CONCERNED BY Beijing’s moves and increasing presence in Seychelles, India sent Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar on an unannounced visit to the island country on Tuesday to iron out differences over the development of infrastructure on Assumption Island, top sources told The Indian Express.
Seychelles has said it would like to take a “relook” at the agreement between the two countries to build military infrastructure on Assumption Island, signed during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Seychelles in March 2015.
Officials in Seychelles have said the agreement does not have legal backing on their side, whereas it has legal basis in India. To avoid returning to the negotiating table, Jaishankar met Seychelles President Danny Faure and discussed the hurdles that have come up in recent months.
What has alarmed New Delhi is that, according to Indian intelligence reports, there has been a sharp spike in the number of Chinese visitors in Seychelles over the last six years — from about 500 in 2011 to over 15,000 in 2016.
South Block sources, tracking the Seychelles-China cooperation, said the two countries are exploring new avenues of cooperation in defence, and this was made clear during the visit of the Central Military Commission of China, led by deputy chief of the joint staff department, General Wang Guanzhong, last year.
With Delhi determined to scale up its relationship with Seychelles to a more strategic, comprehensive and ambitious partnership, sources said they do not want any hurdle in developing infrastructure on Assumption Island, located southwest of the main island of Mahe. “We want the progress on development of island infrastructure to go ahead without any hindrance,” said a South Block source.
Development of island infrastructure is an internationally-accepted euphemism for development of strategic assets. The US and China already have many such assets in the region, with Djibouti in the Indian Ocean being the most recent example.
Officials said the agreement will enable India to help Seychelles build military infrastructure for the Seychelles People’s Defence Forces (SPDF) on Assumption Island, including residential barracks for its Coast Guard and fixing up the jetty and existing airstrip for the SPDF.
During his interaction with Chinese officials earlier this year, Faure is reported to have expressed his wish to increase cooperation with the Chinese military to help shape the structure of the defence forces of Seychelles.
Sources said defence cooperation between Seychelles and China has increased since the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding in October 2004. Following incidents of piracy in the Indian Ocean, Chinese vessels provided assistance, patrolling the waters off the coast of Somalia.
As part of their defence cooperation, the Chinese Navy’s hospital ship — ‘Peace Ark’ — visited Seychelles in November 2010. In 2011, China donated two Y-12 aircraft for surveillance of the Seychelles’ Exclusive Economic Zone against piracy, as well as other illegal and unreported activities.
There are “elements within Seychelles government” who have been trying to pose challenges to India’s plans to develop infrastructure on Assumption Island, said a source. “Since it is of immense strategic significance for us, the attempt is to talk to the proactive voices and decision- makers…,” said another source.
The two countries have an established relationship in defence and maritime security, through which India helps to patrol the waters of Seychelles and gives equipment to the island nation’s defence forces. In recent years, India has agreed to help Seychelles map its hydrology reserves, launched a coastal surveillance radar project and boosted security cooperation with the nation. It has said that it will give a second Dornier maritime patrol aircraft.
On Wednesday, Jaishankar met Foreign Secretary of Seychelles Claude Morel, Diplomatic Advisor to the President Callixte D’Offay, and Principal Secretary for the Department of Foreign Affairs Michelle Murray. He was accompanied by Indian High Commissioner Dr Ausaf Sayeed and MEA Joint Secretary (Indian Ocean Region) Sanjay Panda.