News that China is considering a military base in Madagascar puts in question India’s failure, so far, to secure its own presence on the remote Seychelles island of Assumption. If China goes ahead with its plan, what are the options for India?
Both China and India have a common desire to strengthen their military capacity in the southwestern Indian Ocean. As competing Asian powers, they are drawn by the strategic importance of the Mozambique Channel. Shipping that makes its way to and from the Atlantic, around the southern tip of Africa, follows a natural course between the large island of Madagascar and the southeast African coastline. This is not only a busy thoroughfare now, but it also offers an option if, for any reason, the shorter route to Europe and North America through the Suez Canal is blocked. For China, with its new port facilities in Pakistan and land routes to the Indian Ocean, there is the added incentive of this route as a way to sustain its traffic in the event of a disruption to the Strait of Malacca.
Anticipating this kind of situation and wanting to assert its own position in the region, over the past decade India has been making strenuous efforts to locate its own base on the island of Assumption. Located some 1,100 kilometers from Seychelles’ capital, the island sits just to the north of the Mozambique Channel. At first, the request was for little more than a refueling and light repairs facility that could be used by other navies too. It would also have the advantage of assisting Seychelles’ coast guard in patrolling the remote waters that surround the island. Only when a more ambitious plan came to light – to provide a garrison for 500 military personnel and associated facilities, exclusively for India – did the proposed base spark a strong populist reaction in Seychelles.
Amid concerns that it would represent a loss of sovereignty and put Seychelles in the middle of a potential conflict between the two Asian powers, the proposal was quietly dropped. But it has never officially been withdrawn. When India chose, instead, to look to Mauritius’ islands of Agalega, the popular view was that the issue had gone away. With China’s growing interest in the same corner of the ocean, however, that has proved to be a premature assumption.
There have been reports for some time that China is seeking to build a military base in this same stretch of the ocean, balancing its military capacity in the southwestern Indian Ocean with the base it already has in the northwest, in Djibouti. Various locations have been mooted: somewhere along the Tanzanian coast, a site in Comoros, and northern Madagascar. All the signs are that the last of these is the one that is favored. In 2021, China appointed its first military attaché to Madagascar and various inducements followed. Well before this, though, China has been investing heavily in the large island nation and has a special interest in its resources, especially valuable supplies of rare earth minerals.
If, as seems likely, China does pursue a military base in Madagascar, where does that leave India? The Agalega islands have the disadvantage of being farther from the head of the strategic Mozambique Channel; they have always been second best to Assumption. It is highly likely that renewed pressure will be put on Seychelles to relent on its earlier decision.
The small island state is in need of infrastructure investment, and that may prove to be a strong bargaining point for India. In 2020, following 43 years of rule by the same party, a new government was formed with a fresh approach. An assurance was given that Assumption would not be conceded to a foreign power, but times change and Seychelles would now find itself in a strong bargaining position.
The issue of Assumption is far from dead and buried. India is unlikely to let China have a free run in such a strategic area. In spite of a David and Goliath confrontation between India and Seychelles, the small island state is in a strong bargaining position. Some tough negotiations might well lie ahead. The question is whether the gains for Seychelles would outweigh the costs. Politicians will need to make the calculation. Diplomats (including a new High Commissioner for India in Seychelles, shortly to take up the post) will have their work cut out – watch this space.