Back in January, the governments of India and the Seychelles signed a 20-year deal for the construction of military installations on Assumption Island, including an airstrip and a small port. However, this week the opposition coalition blocked any attempts to approve the deal, going as far as declaring it “dead,” Al-Jazeera reported.
Many sectors of the Seychellois society have opposed the endeavor. There are fears that the $550 deal could attract swathes of Indian workers, who would then dominate the economy in a nation with only 90,000 inhabitants, as discussed by Business Day.
The geopolitical aspect to this discussion also weighted heavily to the opposition to Indian military presence, especially given the nuclear capabilities of New Delhi and its main rival, Beijing. Additionally, the perceived affront to national sovereignty also boosted the opposition coalition in this issue.
But it is not only the attempt to stay out of the Indian-Chinese feud that fuels the opposition’s veto. Victoria has been involved in negotiations for energy and economic deals with other international partners, which would benefit from an ostensibly neutral stance on the part of the Seychellois government.
Moreover, India seeks to reinforce its power over the Indian Ocean, which it sees as its own backyard on geopolitical terms. This reality has been pushing New Delhi to seek partners and reinforce alliances, especially with the U.S.
The Seychelles Islands are located northeast of Madagascar, and around 1.000 miles out of the Eastern African coast.
Albeit tiny regarding both landmass and population, the islands still encompass some of the most important sea routes in the Indian Ocean. The Indian military installations in Assumption would purposely serve to defend these lanes from piracy and fight drug trafficking and illegal fishing.
It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to assume that they could also be used to monitor the activities of the other nations in the region, especially China.
Beijing has recently built its first overseas military base in Djibouti, which is certainly a concern for New Delhi. Furthermore, China has also been building a chain of artificial islands in the South China Sea, as a way to both expand and cement its presence in the region.
The base in Djibouti would be an expansion of this “String of Pearls” to Africa and the Middle East, thus flanking India from both sides. This flanking aspect is evident when we take into account the close relationship between Pakistan and China.
Furthermore, Beijing is also extending its influence into Nepal and Sri Lanka in the form of investments that those countries sorely need, further encroaching on New Delhi, as discussed by the South China Morning Post.
Expanding its direct military influence onto the wider Indian Ocean would be a way to break through and attempt to achieve parity for India. But the attempt to invest in the Maldives, another insular nation, fluttered as Beijing stepped in to support President Abdullah Yameen, The Economic Times reported.
Another aspect of this equation is the shift in political allegiances. Historically, India was an important Soviet client, but as Beijing got cozier with Moscow after the end of the Cold War, New Delhi sought closer cooperation with the U.S.
The possibility of being dragged into the uncertainty represented by this duel of titans would undoubtedly make the Seychellois uneasy with a close alliance with India. Ralph Volcere, a political activist that spoke to Al-Jazeera, stated that his nation could not afford taking sides.
A neutral approach could also benefit Victoria significantly in the long term.
The small island nation became one of the 44 signatories of the African Continental Free Trade Area, the Seychelles News Agency reported. The signing happened on March 21, at the Extraordinary Summit of the African Union in Kigali, Rwanda.
The Seychellois vice-president, Vincent Meriton, headed Victoria’s delegation and boasted about the opportunities opened by taking away barriers to imports and exports among African countries.
However, the Freed Trade Area still needs to be ratified, but if it indeed comes into being, it could foster greater cooperation within the continent. The Seychelles intend to be part of this process, and it is easy to assume that being neutral in the wider picture and open to deal with several parties would solidify its stance within the African community.
Thus, India will need to reassess its position among the Indian insular nations, if it genuinely wants to stand up to China’s growing global influence. Moreover, the Seychelles intend to be a part of the future of the African economy and politics, and maybe they will benefit from remaining outside the greater power struggles.