Aldabra group, Andamans, Assumption Island, Australia, China, Christmas Island, Cocos Islands, Danny Faure, Diego Garcia, EEZ, Exclusive Economic Zone, France, France-Albert René, India, Indian Navy, INS Vindhyagiri, James Michel, Japan, Maldives, maritime, Narendra Modi, nuclear, Rajiv Gandhi, Reunion, Seychelles, SOSUS, Sound Surveillance System, United States
The small, out-of-mind archipelago of Seychelles has been in the Indian news cycle an inordinate amount. Part of this is due to a prospering Indian public starting to take greater interest in the geopolitics of their region. Another reason is the recent agreement signed between India and Seychelles for the construction of a military base on Assumption Island, one of the 115 islands of the African country. Originally signed in 2015 during a visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the country, work could not begin on the strategic asset as the deal was not ratified by the Seychelles parliament during the term of the previous president, James Michel.
Controversy was stirred recently when the present president of the South Indian Ocean country, Danny Faure, declared in 2017 that the agreement would have to be renegotiated as it did not serve the interests of the Seychellois. Then, a recent leak of the text of the newly-negotiated agreement also stoked the controversy in that it was alleged that Victoria has sold off Assumption Island to India; Faure’s administration rushed to clarify that this was not the case and stressed that India would not be developing infrastructure on Assumption for military purposes. Ostensibly, the facilities are meant to support patrolling against illegal fishing, piracy, and drug and human trafficking.
Under the agreement, India will renovate the airstrip on Assumption Island, renovate the jetty, and build living quarters for the Seychelles Coast Guard. The entire project is expected to take a quarter of the tiny island that measures barely 6.7 kms in length and 2.9 kms in width and cost approximately $550 million.
Several things were clarified and modified between the 2015 agreement and the 2018 revision. The deal was extended to 20 years from 10 years with an option to further extend the arrangement by another 10 years; it was clarified that the island was still under the sovereignty of Seychelles, meaning that Indians stationed on Assumption Island will face Seychellois justice if accused of a crime; the obligations of each party were explicitly spelled out as were technical details pertaining to the jetty and airstrip; conditions for the storage of arms have been made more stringent (military exercises, guarding the facilities, and self-defence in case of internal disturbances). As in the 2015 agreement, India has agreed not to use the base in times of war or allow vessels with nuclear weapons to use the facilities. Third parties may be allowed use of the facilities upon joint agreement by both governments.
Although Seychelles has been at pains to emphasise that the agreement with India is not military in nature, the terms indicate otherwise or at least hold open the strong potential for use for security purposes. Victoria, however, does not wish to invite Great Power rivalry – not just between India and China but potentially the United States and France as well – into its living room and has made a public relations decision to highlight the benefits it receives from the development of infrastructure on Assumption Island in the enforcement of domestic law and order.
The deal is seen as important for India because it enhances its surveillance capabilities over the Indian Ocean. In concert with a coastal surveillance radar station already operating in Seychelles, a naval base at Agalega in Mauritius, a coastal radar station in Madagascar, an array of radars in Maldives, and a strong presence in the littoral waters of Mozambique, Delhi’s acquisition of facilities on one of the 67 raised coral islands of the Aldabra group will create an impermeable surveillance net in the southwestern and central Indian Ocean. Assumption Island’s position dominating the Mozambique channel, a key sea lane for merchant ships, adds to India’s kitty a second potential choke point after the Strait of Malacca; the latter is dominated by India’s augmented presence in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands chain as well as with naval agreements with Vietnam and Singapore.
India’s strategic assets in its ocean, important as they are on their own, have an added multiplier effect: Delhi has recently signed a Logistics Support Agreement with the United States and France, allowing the navies of those countries to share naval facilities with the Indian Navy. This extends India’s reach even further from the French base at Reunion – perhaps even Paris’ services in Djibouti – and the US base at Diego Garcia. Together, it is possible for the three countries to establish a Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS) line array to closely monitor the movement of all ships and submarines through the region. It is rumoured that India is seeking Japanese assistance in setting up a similar surveillance line from Indira Point to Sumatra, which will then connect with a similar existing US-Japanese network in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean Rim. Between these two arrays, Delhi’s knowledge of movement in the Indian Ocean will see a marked increase and make its naval deployments more efficient.
An agreement with Australia for access to its Indian Ocean Territories, Cocos Islands and Christmas, is tempting but the geography and size of the islands is not an insignificant obstacle to overcome.
There has been some opposition to India’s presence in the archipelago that range from geopolitical to economic and environmental. However, with approximately 10% of the population tracing its roots back to India, there is, so far, general good will towards India. Unlike its larger northeastern neighbour China, India has avoided giving hard loans or flooding client states with Indian labour and instead preferred joint development. India’s previous assistance to the archipelago also puts it in good standing with the Seychellois. In June and September 1986, India helped suppress two coups in the country, the first by deploying the INS Vindhyagiri (which, to be fair, was already on its way to the island on a routine visit) and the second by then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi loaning Air India One to Seychelles president France-Albert René. India has also helped Seychelles patrol its Exclusive Economic Zone and provided equipment such as Dornier Do 228s and Chetak helicopters to meet the security needs of the island chain. The Indian Navy has frequently assisted Seychelles in anti-piracy operations in the past decade. and Delhi has also helped train the Seychellois own armed forces.
At present, India is economically and militarily incapable of facing Chinese encroachment into the Indian Ocean. Beijing has been candid about its String of Pearls for over a decade and yet little was done to augment India’s ability to respond to the threat, either diplomatically or otherwise. Despite its jarring paeans to non-alignment, strategic autonomy, and other such dated misadventures, Delhi has recently made a sound move by agreeing to work in tandem with similarly-minded powers to protect the Indian Ocean. The acquisition of its own assets in the Indian Ocean Region is a bonus and will retain some autonomy for India.