There’s been much talk in the media of an apparent offer by the Seychelles of a base for Chinese ships deployed to the Gulf of Aden and the West Indian Ocean, to help combat piracy. While it’s not yet clear if the offer has been accepted, Chinese media reports suggest that Beijing is actively considering it as a “resupply” base.
China’s Foreign Ministry was quick to state that Beijing isn’t contemplating a military base in for the Seychelles, adding that it wouldn’t “violate” its traditional policy of “not stationing troops abroad.” Still, China's quest for a foothold in the Indian Ocean isn’t a recent development – and it’s one that India needs to watch carefully.
China began pursuing its so-called “String of Pearls” strategy in the Indian Ocean in 2001 via the commercial route, constructing the Gwadar port. Subsequently, China won contracts to construct ports at Hambantota on the southern tip of Sri Lanka, Chittagong in Bangladesh and Kyaukpyu on the east coast of Burma in the Arabian Sea.
The Seychelles is a small island country in the Indian Ocean comprising a group of 115 small islands covering an area about 450 kilometers square. The country has a population of just 87,000, but has a huge Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of 1.4 million square kilometers. The country’s strategic importance can be traced back to the Napoleonic era, when Britain gained control over the island. Much more recently, the U.S. originally intended to develop a base on the Seychelles’ Aldabra Island, but intense pressure from conservationists prevailed, and the United States instead went with Diego Garcia.
China, though, despite having diplomatic relations with the Seychelles dating back to 1976, showed little interest in the country until President Hu Jintao visited in 2007. During Hu’s trip, no less than five bilateral agreements were signed on economic and technical cooperation, education and investment promotion. Hu’s visit for the first time clearly signaled China’s strategic interests in the region.
Last week, Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Liang Guanglie led a 40-member military delegation to the Seychelles – a big enough group to suggest that Beijing is keen to shore up plans for an active presence for the People’s Liberation Army in the near future. As part of developing military ties, China gifted the Seychelles People's Defense Forcestwo Y-12 aircraft for surveillance and anti-piracy duties. China is also reportedly training 50 SPDF soldiers in China as part of a military cooperation agreement signed in 2004.
All of this will be of particular interest to India. India has actively supported the Seychelles by helping train the SPDF, and has provided a Dornier aircraft, two Chetek helicopters (1981 vintage) and a fast attack craft. Indian ships regularly visit Victoria, and have been active in combating piracy in the waters around the Seychelles. The Indian foreign and defense ministers, meanwhile, visited the Seychelles in 2010, underlining the importance New Delhi places on having friendly relations with the country.
With this in mind, it’s clear that the Chinese naval presence in this part of the Indian Ocean is not in India's interest. But what’s China’s interest in establishing a base in the Seychelles?
For a start, it satisfies China’s hunger for a firm foothold in the Indian Ocean. The Seychelles provides the PLA Navy an ideal platform from which to counter any threat to its sea lines of communication from Africa by the U.S. Navy operating out of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean region. In addition, to assist with the resupply, rest and refit of PLAN ships undertaking anti-piracy duties in the region, China requires a large logistics depot, which can be supplied by air and merchant/naval ships. The Seychelles base could therefore eventually be developed into a permanent naval base.
And there are other possible motives. For a start, China has large investments in mining, minerals and infrastructure in Africa, and the Seychelles is ideally located to help protect these Chinese interests, as well as ensure the smooth evacuation of the large Chinese expatriate population on the continent if need be. Militarily, the Seychelles provides an ideal location for setting up listening posts to monitor the U.S., Indian and other navies operating in the region. Perhaps most significantly, the Seychelles is equidistant from sea lines of control carrying oil from the Middle East and Africa to China, enabling the PLAN to effectively support its merchant vessels in times of crisis.
And how does the PLAN presence in the Seychelles affect India? First, it allows China to directly confront the Indian Navy, the largest in this region. Second, the PLAN’s permanent presence is a direct threat to India’s western seaboard and Indian sea lines of control leading to the Indian Peninsula. Third, PLAN proximity to the Pakistan Navy lends credibility to the possibility of a combined naval threat at sea. Hitherto, a combined Sino-Pakistan threat was limited largely to the land frontiers. Now, Indian planners will have to factor in the sea dimension. Fourth, as in the past, the PLAN will be able to establish listening posts to actively monitor the Indian Navy in the region. Finally, a PLAN presence, however small, will inevitably divert significant Indian Navy resources from the Western Fleet in the event of conflict. This threat would be exacerbated if the PLAN were to gain access to an airfield, which would provide a big boost to its maritime reconnaissance capabilities in the Indian Ocean.
So how should India respond? For a start, it needs to actively engage the island nations in the Western Indian Ocean, namely Mauritius, the Maldives, the Seychelles and Madagascar – diplomatically, economically and militarily – to prevent the Chinese footprint spreading. The Maldives, in particular, is of real significance as it acts as a strategic forward outpost against any developments along India’s eastern seaboard.
In the case of the Seychelles, India must neutralize any economic or commercial advantage that China offers to that country, thereby limiting its use for the Chinese as a “resupply” base. In addition, India could consider greater military assistance in the form of supplying naval equipment and training for the SPDF to fight piracy and poaching in its EEZ.
Whatever New Delhi decides, one thing is clear – the scope and deployment of the Indian Navy and its air arm should be increased considerably in the West Indian Ocean.
Mandip Singh is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) in New Delhi. This is an edited and abridged version of an article that was originally published by the organization here.