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Reaffirming Neighborhood First Policy: A Fresh Start From Seychelles

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The ongoing military standoffs at India’s northern frontiers again provoked India to strengthen its strategic significance in the Indian Ocean region. This development comes after a 6-day visit to 3 countries from 24–29 November, 2020, by the External Affairs Minister of India and on the other hand, by the National Security Advisor of India for his visit to Sri Lanka on 27 November, 2020. However, Seychelles was the third and the last country on his list of diplomatic visits.

Relating the Seychelles visit with the Sri Lanka Formula

The “Sri Lanka Formula” is a strategy that was undertaken in 2019 after the swearing of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in Sri Lanka when India’s EAM Dr S Jaishankar visited Colombo to bring the bilateral ties on track. When Mahinda Rajapaksa was the President in 2015, he initiated close ties with China that got an easy hand to weigh its anchors at the Hambantota Port of Sri Lanka. This remains fresh in the public memory that compelled President Rajapaksa to take an opposite stand.

China was interacting with the governments of Sri Lanka and the Maldives to expand its network under the String-of-Pearls Policy in return for an abhorrent debt trap, helping China to gain access over the Island. However, to seek support for revival from the debt trap of China, Mahinda Rajapaksa visited India after taking over as Prime Minister to end all misunderstandings and forging new possibilities to enhance security ties. With the ruling of the Rajapaksa brothers in Sri Lanka, New Delhi tried to ensure them a safe side.       

This same tactical move comes after a visit by India’s External Affairs Minister to Seychelles. In Seychelles, a new government took over led by Wavel Ramkalawan as President. President Ramkalawan was previously the opposition leader in the National Assembly of Seychelles; he won a landslide victory in a peaceful election held after 1977. New Delhi saw this opportunity as a boon-in disguise for gearing up towards fulfilling its target on achieving the Assumption Island Objective.

Understanding the relations between India and Seychelles

President of Seychelles Danny Faure with Prime Minister Modi during his visit to India in 2018.

India and Seychelles have shared a strong relation, as both nations trace their birth from a colonial past. India has been a genuine partner for Seychelles in supporting its security, trade and technology sectors. Even in the internal political scenario of Seychelles, India had played a major role in the smooth functioning of democracy based on the principles of the Rule of Law.

In 1986 the Indian Navy launched Operation Flowers are Blooming and deployed the INS Vindhyagiri ship towards Seychelles to help abort a coup d’état against President France Albert-Rene led by Defence Minister Ogilvy Berlouis. Then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi aided his aircraft, which transported President Rene from Harare to Seychelles, but he took shelter at the Indian High Commission of Male, Maldives. Indian Navy had sent many ships to Seychelles for patrolling missions around the Exclusive Economic Zone to undertake anti-piracy operations on Victoria’s request.

The Government of Seychelles observed the India First Policy since 1991 following the introduction of multi-party democracy. Narendra Modi’s visit to Seychelles as the 1st Indian Prime Minister after 33 years gave it a new dimension.   

India has initiated various infrastructural projects in Seychelles. Presently, India is constructing the Magistrate’s Court Building under a cash grant of $3.5 million along with a New Government House, Police Headquarters and Attorney General’s Office. India has even contributed two Dornier-228 Maritime Surveillance Aircraft to the Seychelles Coast Guard in 2013 and 2018.

India also played an important role in upgrading the defence forces of Seychelles by contributing Interceptor boats and vessels such as PS Topaz, PS Constant, and C-405. The Indian Army has conducted Exercise “LAMITYE-8” in Mahe from 24 February–8 March, 2018.

In 2015, Prime Minister Modi, during his visit to Seychelles, proposed the construction of a military base at the Assumption Islands. This Island is located under the (SLOCs) Sea Lanes of Communication; as the development of which would have helped to ensure quick surveillance over the strategic assets in the Indian Ocean. India planned to jointly develop the base that could be used together by India and Seychelles under an investment plan of $550 million.

In 2018 a CRS Radar Station was launched at Assumption Island by Prime Minister Modi.

The Strategic importance of Assumption Islands

The Assumption Island is located near the Indian Sea Lanes of Communication that is threatened by Somalian pirates. The usefulness of the Island increases proximity to the Mozambique Channel and the Gulf of Aden. Around 100 trillion cubic meters of natural gas was recovered from this edge, which led to an increase in the importance of this region.

The Government of Seychelles led by then-President Danny Faure in 2018 stressed building the base at Assumption Island would help in ensuring surveillance over the 1.3 sq km of the exclusive economic zone. 

The importance of Assumption Island base can be understood in terms such as:

  • It will help in the safe passage of vessels and containers towards the Southern Indian Ocean region.
  • This base would also allow the Indian Navy to ensure close monitoring of the Mozambique Channel to thwart piracy attempts, drug trafficking and other illegal activities plus ensuring protection of India’s transit route.
  • It would also help to encircle the Chinese Navy deployments in the Indian Ocean in times of deadlocks.

Establishing this base would give India proximity to the French Reunion Islands and the US Navy Base of Diego Garcia. The Government of India signed a $100 million deal for 20 years and also gave Seychelles a free hand to close the deal as per their wish.   

Some critical issues arose with the leaking of some facts provoking public opposition. The major reasons for opposition were:

  • The local people feared dominance and influx of Indian traders, which would have destroyed the economy.
  • Many people feared the construction of a military base by another country as a threat to the Island’s sovereignty.
  • The stakeholders were reluctant to engage in any regional conflicts.
  • Another area of concern was the Aldabra Toll, which is a UNESCO-recognised site as well as the home to the world’s largest turtle population which would also threaten the natural balance of the Island nation. 

In 2018 a newly revised agreement was signed, including new changes in the old agreement prohibiting India from accessing the base during times of war by harbouring any nuclear-armed vessels or submarines on the Island. China tried to grasp an opportunity to build its base at Assumptions Island in 2011, but the public mood spoilt attempts of both the nations.

This case shows complications of domestic, foreign and defence policy decisions of the incumbent governments in Seychelles that tried to manage the deepening fault lines. The increasing geopolitical fault lines would have left long-lasting impacts upon Wavel Ramkalawan’s Government that might have resulted in turbulent issues of Foreign Policy decisions. Thus, considering the geopolitical importance, construction of this base is a requirement for Seychelles too. 

Outcomes from this recent visit 

Dr Jaishankar’s recent visit to Seychelles is considered the first diplomatic reception held by Victoria at the backdrop of COVID-19 pandemic following the assumption of office by President Wavel Ramkalawan. India’s Mission SAGAR (Security and Growth for all in the Region) Initiative has proved its effectiveness to strengthen ties with Seychelles.

Under Mission SAGAR, all essential goods like medicine and food materials have been transported to all the nations in the Indian Ocean region to help towards capacity building during the COVID-19 pandemic. This deal helped India for projecting leadership capacity with a commitment to share resources, and expertise under a long objective that benefitted Seychelles. It has left a positive impact as a result of India’s nation-building commitment to increase cooperation at a higher level.

The President of Seychelles is assured to be part of India’s Neighborhood First Policy, where he was guaranteed assistance under the SAGAR Mission. Both the leaders stressed strengthening efforts to combat drug trafficking, IUU (Illegal Unreported and Unregulated) fishing and piracy activities to ensure control over issues of climate change and protecting the ocean ecosystem under a wide range of issues impacting their interests. 

However, this visit by India’s External Affairs Minister was aimed towards enhancing Infrastructural development in Seychelles to counter China’s expansionist movements around the region where it was also trying to expand its military presence. India’s efforts in Seychelles needs to be ensured with tactical planning so that the people don’t view India’s actions as a neo-colonialist tendency.

Therefore, India should particularly at the same time, ensure its consistency and vigilance in overall projects that are conducted to imbibe a sense of trust and confidence upon the authority and administrators at Seychelles.

All pieces of information used for writing this article are based on my observation from other blogs, news reports, YouTube videos and expert opinions.

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