As part of his recent three nation Indian Ocean tour, Narendra Modi became the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Seychelles after 34 years; Indira Gandhi being the last in 1981. Modi led a high level delegation which included among others Foreign Secretary and National Security Adviser, and his visit saw signing of four pacts, including one on bolstering maritime security and closer cooperation in ‘ocean economy’.
Evolution of Bilateral Relations and Areas of Cooperation
India and Seychelles share historical socio-cultural ties and people to people contact due to Seychelles’ strategic location connecting eastern African and south Asian sea lanes of trade and communication. This 116 island nation is located 1350 to 1800 kilometers from the East African coast, and the pluralistic society of Seychelles encompasses people of French, British, Indian, Iranian and Chinese descent. Over 10 percent of its 90,000 population is of Indian origin. India established diplomatic ties with Seychelles soon after its independence in 1976. An Indian Mission was established in 1979 in Victoria with the High Commissioner based in Dar-es-Salaam concurrently accredited to Seychelles. The bilateral relationship has been marked by high level exchanges from both sides; the last one from Indian side being by former President Pratibha Patil in 2012 and by Vice President Danny Faure of Seychelles in February 2014.
The close relationship between the two countries is based on the twin planks of maritime security and development cooperation. India has been involved with Seychelles in helping bolster its need for maritime security as it has a large Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of 1.3 million square kilometers.
Development cooperation encompasses capacity building where more than one percent of the Seychelles’ population is trained under ITEC, provision of patrol vessels, hydrographic surveys etc besides cooperation in counter piracy and counter terrorism in high seas, which is critical for India’s extended maritime security as well. There is a tradition of bilateral development cooperation in health, science & technology, renewable energy, providing advisors in critical areas and in bilateral exercises.
Seychelles is a part of the Pan African e-Network project between India and the African Union, that seeks to connect the 53 member states of the African Union through a satellite and fiber optic network to India and to each other to enable access to and sharing of expertise between India and African states, particularly in the medical and education field.
India has traditionally been the main defence provider for Seychelles, providing armaments and training to its Seychelles Peoples' Defence Forces. The two sides also have a military cooperation agreement, whereby, India has trained Seychelles People's military personnel in combat operations. Though India is not part of the 25-nation combined Task Force 15 (CTF-150) battling piracy out of Bahrain, its ships and boats have patrolled the region, which was acknowledged and appreciated by President James Michael during his India visit in 2010.
Why Seychelles is Important for India?
Seychelles’ strategic importance traces back to the Napoleonic era when Britain gained control over this island which straddled the trade route to the East Indies.1 Given its proximity to the oil sea lanes and oil producing nations, US wanted to build a base at Aldabra Island in the Seychelles, but had to shift it to Diego Garcia due to political constraints.
India is trying to influence Indian Ocean Region by extending economic, military and diplomatic cooperation and through strategic partnership. From 2005, India has embarked upon a policy to engage four western Indian Ocean island nations and Seychelles forms a crucial part of it.
Apart from its strategic location on international sea lanes of communication as discussed earlier, Seychelles is a leader among SIDS group (Small Island Developing States) which has multifold areas of convergence with India. It is a leader in advancing the concept of ‘blue economy’, which covers a huge panoply of aspects like environment, hydrocarbons, marine economy, renewable energy and exploration of continental shelf and as Modi said, ‘this Ocean Economy is indispensable to meeting our future challenges.’
China has been making inroads into these island nations with infrastructure projects that have raised India's eyebrows. A report published in a Namibian newspaper on November 11 of last year, quoting a Chinese media report that China plans to set up 18 naval bases in Indian Ocean Region including Seychelles has further added to Indian concerns. Hence, it is imperative for India to actively engage with this island nation to neutralize economic or commercial advantage that China offers to that country, thereby limiting its use for the Chinese as a `resupply` base.2
This island nation also forms the entry gate to eastern Africa with which India has had historical socio-commercial links and now forms a huge market for Indian firms.
Outcome of Visit
India secured a pact to develop infrastructure of Assumption Island in Seychelles, which as Modi said, gives a strong boost to this partnership. Spread over 11 sq.kms, it is strategically located in the Indian Ocean, north of Madagascar. ‘Island development’ is an internationally accepted euphemism for developing strategic assets, with US and China known to be developing infrastructure in islands all over the world.
Modi launched a costal surveillance radar project which is set up with Indian assistance. It will enable Seychelles to combat piracy while helping India keep a track of Chinese moves.
India agreed to help Seychelles in mapping its hydrology reserves under four agreements signed with it, which is the science of measurement and description of features which affect maritime navigation, marine construction, dredging, offshore oil exploration/drilling and related activities, thus helping Seychelles bolster its maritime security. Also, India will be giving a second Dornier maritime patrol aircraft to Seychelles.
India also agreed to provide free of cost visas for three months for citizens of Seychelles and making it available to them on arrival.
Modi thanked President Michel for his government’s consistent support to India on international fora, including the endorsement for India’s permanent membership of United Nations Security Council. He also remarked that the impressive progress of this island nation shows that ‘size is no barrier to the scale of achievements.’
Making a Difference for Seychelles
While it is no secret that every major power is trying to expand its strategic footprints in Indian Ocean Region for securing its own national interests, Prime Minister Modi, in his speech at the civic reception, pointed out how India’s growth story is intricately woven with Seychelles’ growth and success. The Indian defence sector has always helped Seychelles secure its maritime boundaries. Tourism is not only a tool for deeper economic engagement, but also a medium to connect mankind. A better people to people connect ensures deepening trust and respect for shared values of democracy and inclusiveness. This is where India makes the difference which is attested by the fact that Seychelles finds in India “a non-threatening stable ally”. Calling India a leader, President Michel said his country looks up to India and is looking forward to his visit here.
Thus this ‘Dakshinayan’ is a step in the right direction to secure and generate confidence in India’s extended neighbourhood and the success of the Seychelles trip spells good omen for Indian efforts in connecting dots, with no string (of pearls) attached!3
- Mandip Singh, The Proposed PLA Naval Base in Seychelles and India’s Options, December 2011
- Shri. Bhushan Deshmukh
Published Date: 17th March 2014, Image source: http://media2.intoday.in
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Vivekananda International Foundation)