An agreement between India and the Indian Ocean island of Seychelles to build a military base has run into rough weather. Signed during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the island in March 2015, the agreement remained unratified by the country’s National Assembly. Then, it was revised this January and was to have been tabled for ratification this month, but the process has been postponed till April.
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On the eve of the National Assembly taking it up on 6 March, the text of the revised agreement was leaked online. As it is, it had been facing vociferous opposition from a group of activists led by the former tourism minister. The government of President Danny Faure is in a minority in the National Assembly, but the Opposition leader Wavel Ramkalawn had agreed to support the revised agreement which was drafted after the 2015 agreement was shared with him. Subsequently, on 5 March, the country’s ombudsman was also given a copy of the agreement.
Not a Tourist Brochure Paradise for India
Given Seychelles’ size and location, it has faced some external threats. In 1981, a group of white mercenaries led by British-Irish ex-paratrooper Mad Mike Hoare attempted to overthrow the government. Sensitised by this experience, the country reached out to India and twice in 1986, New Delhi helped prevent a coup against the Seychelles government. The two countries signed an MOU on defence cooperation 2003 and as part of this, in 2009, Indian naval ships were sent to patrol the country’s EEZ against Somali pirates.
Since then, New Delhi has donated helicopters, patrol boats and a Dornier maritime surveillance aircraft to build the Seychelles’ capacity for surveillance and policing of its own EEZ. As part of the 2015 agreements, India has built a network of 6 coastal radar stations which are manned by Seychelles Coast Guard personnel.
It was during Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Seychelles in March 2015 that the two sides signed the first agreement for the development of Assumption Island. The agreement sought to build facilities to enhance the maritime surveillance and search and rescue capabilities of Seychelles. Under this agreement, India was to renovate an airstrip in the island, upgrade its jetty and construct housing facilities for the Seychelles Coast Guard.
It gave both India and Seychelles the right to use the facilities and noted that third parties could use it, provided they were not inimical to the “national interest of either party.” The Opposition had at the time criticised the government for hiding things from them, charging that the island was being sold or leased to India. The agreement, however, went into a limbo in 2016 as the government went into a minority in the National Assembly where it needed to be ratified.
When the Waters Got Choppier
By this time, significant opposition had developed, led by activists who had organised weekly protests from the beginning of the year. Among those leading the protests was a former minister in the government who charged that a world heritage site could be affected through the implementation of the agreement.
At a public hearing on the deal, there were charges that the agreement was about establishing an Indian military base and that New Delhi was using Seychelles’ facilities to carry on its war against China.
The leak through a YouTube video provides links three URLs to Google Drive folders containing the entire text of the 2018 agreement, the 2015 version, and a letter detailing the conditions under which Indian military personnel could operate in the island. The video has deliberately sought to give a dramatic gloss to the fairly routine agreement which focuses more on logistics and building up of capacity of the Seychelles.
The Secrecy Storm
A comparison reveals little substantive change in the agreements on 2015 and 2018. The tweaks are more by way of satisfying Seychellois opinion and the issue could have been avoided if the agreement had been made public at the outset.
It said that the purpose of the agreement was to develop and manage aviation, maritime and communications facilities on part of Assumption Island. It explicitly noted that Seychelles would own the facilities while their management would be joint, with India taking the burden of developing the infrastructure, providing the equipment and its maintenance. There were no changes in the provision relating to the functioning of Indian military personnel, though they were made subject to Seychelles law.
Further, India could not bring nuclear weapons into the facilities nor use them “for the purposes of war.” Likewise, there was no change on a crucial provision which said that there would be no restriction on the use of the facilities by even military vessels of third parties, “provided they are not inimical to the interest of either party.”
No Fair Winds for India?
The big question in everyone’s mind is whether after the recent Maldives problem, the Seychelles event represents a setback for India.
This it does, though the two cases are different. In the Maldives, there is a domestic context, whereas the Seychelles’ public protests are somewhat suspicious since the Opposition leader is ready to support the agreement.
China is the subtext of India’s troubles in both the Maldives and the Seychelles, though its hand in the Maldives is clearer. But this is par for the course. Small countries like Seychelles, Mauritius, Maldives and even Sri Lanka are prone to external meddling. But, they also find it useful to play off two larger countries in their own interests, and you cannot begrudge them that.
China is a new entrant into the Indian Ocean, and there is a lot of concern over its development of ports and infrastructure and links with various countries. We should not overstate their significance. As a major trading nation, China will develop and manage ports, and seek secure sea lanes.
But as of now and probably for the next 15 years and more, China will not have significant military capability in the Indian Ocean, at least nothing compared to what India and the United States possess.
India’s current focus in its ties with the Indian Ocean island states is to push forward its its maritime domain awareness project. This involves working together with the island states to help police their EEZs by tracking the movement of various vessels through a chain of coastal radars that India has funded and established. The goal is to assist capacity-building of the facilities, something New Delhi has been involved with well before China came into the picture, rather than any sinister military purpose.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)