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India needs to woo Seychelles back

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India needs to woo Seychelles back


China’s high-speed mega-infrastructure projects are luring India’s neighbourhood adrift at India’s peril. After reviving its traditional axis with Pakistan and cementing partnerships with Sri Lanka, Nepal and the Maldives, it’s beginning to show impact on Seychelles-India relations.

Since the early 2000s, China was seen building Seychelles Supreme Court, other law courts, its national assembly, polytechnic institutions, housing colonies and so on. The two had signed a defence pact in 2004 and there were reports since 2011 of China negotiating for a naval facility as well. It was overlooked by UPA as a mere replenishing facility for China’s anti-piracy operations as IndiaChina navies were building their jointmenship for fighting piracy in Gulf of Aden.

President Xi Jinping’s policies have since accelerated the pace of China currying favours with India’s neighbours. Deputy Chief of the Joint Staff Department of China, General Wang Guanzhou’s November 2016 visit to Seychelles and China’s opening up its first naval base in Djibouti last August had again fired up speculations about China building a naval facility in Seychelles as well.

It is in this backdrop that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy, driven by the strategy of countering Gwadar with Chabahar, saw his March 2015 visit to the Maldives and Seychelles heralding his vision of SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) as both respectively agreed to India developing naval facilities at their Agalega and Assumption Islands. Since then, while China has inaugurated Gwadar and Hambantota ports in Pakistan and Sri Lanka and opened naval base in Djibouti, India has got increasingly entangled with local opposition to India’s projects. This is partly seen as ignited by China’s growing indulgence with these nations.

During President Danny Faure’s visit to India this week, the two countries agreed to work on the stalled Assumption Island Project keeping each other’s interests in mind. But it is still to be ratified by his national parliament dominated by the Opposition. Last October had witnessed political turmoil following general elections resulting in opposition coalition Linyon Demokratik taking control of Seychelles parliament. This had triggered public protests over President James Michael’s failure to redress economic disparities making him resign, and Faure was sworn in as president.

The then foreign secretary, S Jaishankar, had to rush mid-October 2016 to Victoria to renegotiate India’s March 2015 agreement. India has since agreed to grant access to local Coast Guard forces, setting up Coastal Radar Surveillance system, limiting India’s access to 20 year term, promising never to use these facilities for war purposes, gifting three fasttrack patrol boats, and even agreeing to allowing these facilities for use by third country. This revised text was finally clinched in January and saw Jaishankar spend his last working days in Victoria. But the fact that the current foreign secretary, Vijay Gokhale, had to rush to Seychelles again last month indicated how even now not all was well in India-Seychelles relations.

On June 5, President Faure announced how he will not be placing this agreement for parliamentary ratification and that this issue will also not be on agenda for any further discussion during his coming visit to India. This may have dented India’s enduring defence cooperation with Seychelles yet India cannot afford to give up as it still trains 70% of their military forces and accounting for over half of their defence equipment.

So, to rescue this relationship and especially this $550 million project for reviving an old air strip and a jetty and housing for Coast Guards on Assumption Island, India is gifting two more Dornier aircraft to Seychelles. Reports of Seychelles and France exploring to replace India is making the country propose a trilateral India-France-Seychelles formulation. March this year had seen president Emmanuel Macron’s India visit resulting in 14 pacts.

But India also needs to understand the country’s domestic dynamics where combined opposition and environmentalists have accused President Faure of a ‘sell out’ and of exposing their 93,000 population to China-India rivalry and to environmental disasters. Leader of Opposition, Wavell John Charles Ramkalavan, who is of Indian origin, had earlier agreed to support the agreement on the development of Assumption Island but has since reneged on it.

This makes them vulnerable to China’s overtures. Apart from assuaging their fears about breach of sovereignty or environment, India will need to strongly advertise other advantages to Seychelles, especially how it will enable Seychelles to keep a watch over its 1.3 million square kilometer EEZ across southern Indian Ocean which is infested by illegal fishing and drug running and negatively impacting their development.

Having been assured by Faure about the development of naval facilities on Assumption Island, India must now cultivate Seychelles’ domestic constituencies to ensure this is ratified by the national assembly.

Source: Hindustan Times

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