China-India vie for a strategic slice of paradise

Seychelles, a small island nation of 100,000, is at the center of a contest for supremacy in the Indian Ocean

 

Victoria is one of the smallest capital cities in the world. With only 25,000 people, the Seychelles capital still represents a quarter of the tiny island nation’s mixed population of ethnic Indians and Africans.

The town center features an old clock tower brought by the British when the island was separated from their possession Mauritius and made into a separate colony in 1903. Now, the main source of income is high-end tourism and several hundred thousand visitors arrive every year to bask in the sun in what is often described as a tropical island paradise.

Unsurprisingly, the Seychelles also has one of the smallest defense forces in the world with only 650 men in active service. But when General Wang Guanzhong, a leading member of China’s Central Military Commission, visited Victoria in November last year, enhancing “defense cooperation” was high on his agenda, according to a press release from the Seychellois president’s office. The cooperation would involve training, the supply of equipment and high level exchange visits, the statement said.

In June this year, Xu Jinghu, a special representative to the Chinese government, paid a high-profile visit to the Seychelles where she met President Danny Faure and other high-ranking officials.

According to a Chinese foreign ministry statement on the visit, the Seychelles considers “China as a good friend and good brother [and] the country is willing to make joint efforts with China to expand bilateral mutually beneficial cooperation in such areas as blue economy, tourism, health, sports and security, so as to promote the constant and forward-looking development of bilateral friendly cooperative relations.”

The Seychelles may be small in area and population, but is large in strategic significance positioned between Africa, the Arab peninsula and the Indian subcontinent. It’s also in the middle of China’s ‘New Maritime Silk Road’ stretching from southern China and Myanmar to Africa and through the Suez Canal to Europe. That makes Seychelles a potential vital geographic link in Beijing’s “One Belt One Road” (OBOR) infrastructure development initiative.

But China’s overtures towards the island nation have not gone unnoticed among other countries, including India, with a strategic interest in the Indian Ocean. In October, India dispatched Foreign Secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar on a sudden unannounced visit to the Seychelles. He met with President Faure to discuss infrastructure projects and scale up relations to a “more strategic, comprehensive and ambitious partnership between the two countries,” a statement said.

According to people familiar with the situation, New Delhi is alarmed not only by growing China-Seychelles defense and economic cooperation, but also the fast rise in the number of Chinese visitors to the island, up from a mere 500 in 2011 to 15,000 in 2016.

The Indian Ocean region is fast emerging as one of the world’s most important and contested maritime areas. That was underscored by US President Donald Trump’s rhetorical shift from the use of “Asia-Pacific” to “Indo-Pacific” in his references to the wider region during the Southeast Asian legs of his Asian tour.

The budding formation of a ‘quadrilateral’ arrangement between the US, Japan, Australia and India to counterbalance China’s maritime ambitions has also put a new spotlight on the Indian Ocean.

More than 60% of the world’s oil shipments pass through the Indian Ocean, largely exports from the Middle East to importing Asian powerhouse economies such as China, Japan and South Korea. Seventy percent of all container traffic to and from Asia’s industrialized nations also passes through the waterway.

China’s OBOR initiative has added a new strategic dimension that is arguably already impacting on the Indian Ocean region’s balance of power. While officially a peaceful plan to help neighbors and others to develop and facilitate trade, if China delivers on the US$1 trillion it has pledged it could lead to Chinese economic hegemony in the Indian Ocean region and beyond.

OBOR envisions incorporating 65 global countries (India has declined to participate) in the construction of roads, railways and ports that facilitate new maritime trade routes.

But there is a major point that China does not mention in its official handouts. The ‘New Maritime Silk Road’ alludes to ancient but defunct trade routes which OBOR supposedly aims to revive. While there was indeed an overland Silk Road from Europe to China, a “maritime” Silk Road is an entirely new concept.

Arab merchants made it as far as China over the centuries, but no Chinese ships have regularly plied the Indian Ocean since Zheng He, a 15th century Chinese explorer sailed his fleet to South Asia and Africa. Until the late 1980s, Chinese merchant ships seldom ventured outside the immediate region and China’s navy was then largely a riverine force.

The People’s Liberation Army Navy was not developed into a more substantial unit that began to turn its attention towards the seas until 2009.

Now, for the first time in history, China is developing a merchant marine as well as a blue-water navy and it is increasingly making waves in the Indian Ocean. Chinese warships and submarines have been spotted in the region and China is investing heavily via OBOR in other Indian Ocean countries.

That’s raising the strategic ante. In October, India announced that its navy plans a permanent presence with more patrols in the Indian Ocean region to counter China’s growing influence. That’s raising the strategic stakes for small island nations like Seychelles which are likely to come under rising diplomatic pressure to choose one side or another in the contest.

Seychelles achieved independence from Britain in 1976 and was run as a socialist one-party state from 1979 to 1991. Over that period, it developed a close relationship with Tanzania, Eastern Bloc nations and even North Korea. After a transition to democracy in the early 1990s, the Seychelles became a haven not only for jet-set tourism, but also dirty money.

Like many other island nations with a small population and few natural resources, the Seychelles has become “an offshore magnet for money launderers and tax dodgers”, according to a report by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). The Seychelles also figures in the ICIJ’s more recent exposé known as the Paradise Papers, though it’s not clear yet if the revelations will undermine its financial hub status.

Still, the Seychelles’ small population, lack of resources and laggard education system make it vulnerable to outside pressure — especially if monetary incentives are involved — and it appears that China aims to take advantage of that increasingly precarious situation. In 2011, China considered an offer from the Seychelles to establish a port to manage “anti-piracy patrols” in the Gulf of Aden.

While that port was never built, China opened its first overseas base in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa in August this year. If the proposed joint patrols do materialize as part of Beijing’s recent overtures, China’s Djibouti base will no doubt play an important role in the power projection into the Indian Ocean.

The Seychelles’ special relationship with China is contributing to a new strategic dynamic in the region, one that India and other regional players are scrambling to counterbalance. While Beijing’s promotion of the ‘New Maritime Silk Road’ and OBOR initiatives claim to draw on historical trade routes, the reality is China is a new and potentially destabilizing player in the maritime region.

 

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