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The Proposed PLA Naval Base in Seychelles and India’s Options

Major General Mandip Singh was formerly a Senior Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • December 15, 2011

    It has been widely reported in the press that Seychelles has offered China a base for its ships deployed to the Gulf of Aden and the west Indian Ocean to combat piracy in that region. While there are no reports to suggest that the offer has been accepted, Chinese media reports suggest that China is actively considering it as a` resupply` base. China`s Foreign Ministry was quick to clarify that China is not contemplating a military base in Seychelles and that it would `not violate` its age old policy of` not stationing troops abroad`.

    China's quest for a foothold in the Indian Ocean is not a recent development. It began pursuing a policy of `string of pearls` in the Indian Ocean in 2001 through the commercial route by constructing the Gwadar port. Subsequently, China won contracts to construct ports at Hambantota on the southern tip of Sri Lanka, Chittagong port in Bangladesh and Kyaukphyu on the east coast of Myanmar in the Bay of Bangal, lending credibility to the strategic encirclement theory.

    Seychelles is a small island country in the Indian Ocean comprising a group of 115 small islands totalling 455 square kilometres of area. It has a population of 87,000 and a huge Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of 1.4 million square kilometres. Located 1350 to 1800 kilometres from the East African coast, Seychelles is a multi-ethnic and multi-lingual society comprising of people of French, British, Indian, Iranian and Chinese descent. The country’s strategic importance traces back to the Napoleonic era when Britain gained control over this island which straddled the trade route to the East Indies. In the 1960s, US Admiral Hanks argued, in a special report, that Seychelles could be considered as an `unsinkable aircraft carrier` in the Indian Ocean given its proximity to the oil sea lanes and oil producing nations, quite akin to the Ascension island in the Atlantic that the British used extensively to launch attacks against the Argentinean Navy in the Falklands war. The original US idea was to build a base at Aldabra Island in the Seychelles, but intense pressure from conservationists overruled the recommendations and it was shifted to Diego Garcia - 960 kilometres East of Seychelles. Seychelles lies close to the shipping lanes that skirt the East coast of Africa which are under constant piracy threat. Seychelles itself has been a victim of poaching of its marine life as it is unable to patrol its vast EEZ.

    China`s diplomatic relations with Seychelles date back to 1976 and were of little interest till 2007 when President Hu Jintao visited this island nation as a part of his eight-nation tour of Africa. There were only inconsequential diplomatic and economic ties between the two nations till this visit, during which no less than five bilateral agreements were signed for economic and technical cooperation, education and investment promotion. Hu’s visit signalled China’s strategic interests in the region for the first time. Last week Chinese Defence Minister General Liang Guanglie led a 40-member military delegation to Seychelles, a nation with a 500-strong Seychelles Peoples Defence Force (SPDF). Such a large military delegation is significant and it would be reasonable to conclude that this delegation aimed at shoring up plans to have an active presence of the PLA on the island in the near future. As a part of developing military ties, China gifted the SPDF with two Y-12 aircraft for surveillance and anti-piracy duties and its hospital ship `Peace Ark` visited Seychelles in November 2010. China is also training 50 soldiers of the SPDF in China as part of a military cooperation agreement signed in 2004.

    India has a major interest in Seychelles. Besides a fair sized population of Indian descent, mainly from Tamil Nadu and Gujarat, India has actively supported Seychelles in training the SPDF, provided a Dornier aircraft, two Chetek helicopters (1981 vintage) and a fast attack craft. Indian ships regularly visit Victoria and have been active in combating piracy in the waters around Seychelles. The Indian Foreign and Defence Ministers visited Seychelles in 2010 underlining the importance of having friendly relations with Seychelles. The Chinese naval presence in this part of the Indian Ocean is not in India's interest.

    What are the Chinese interests in establishing a base in Seychelles? Foremost, it satisfies China`s hunger for a foothold in the Indian Ocean. That the PLAN would seek more such bases is a distinct possibility. Seychelles provides the PLAN an ideal platform to counter any threat to its SLsOC from Africa by the US Navy (USN) operating out of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean Region. The argument that China needs a vital logistics base to assist in resupply, rest and refit for PLAN ships operating in anti-piracy duties in this region merits consideration. To fulfil this task it will require a large logistics depot to be set up in Seychelles and which will be supplied by air and merchant/naval ships. This could, in time, be developed into a permanent naval base. China has large investments in mining, minerals and infrastructure in Africa. Seychelles is ideally suited to protect these Chinese interests in Africa as also evacuate the large Chinese expatriate population on the continent in the event of Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Relief (HADR) missions. Militarily, Seychelles provides an ideal location for setting up listening posts to monitor the USN, Indian Navy (IN) and other navies in this region. Most significantly, Seychelles is equidistant from SLOCs that carry oil from the Middle East and Africa to China, enabling the PLAN to effectively support its merchant marine in times of crises.

    How does the PLAN presence in Seychelles affect India? Firstly, it would be able to directly confront the Indian Navy (IN), the largest in this region. Secondly, the PLAN’s permanent presence is a direct threat to India’s western seaboard and Indian SLOCs that lead to the Indian Peninsula. Thirdly, PLAN proximity to the Pakistan Navy (PN) lends credibility to a combined naval threat at sea. Hitherto, a combined Sino-Pak threat was limited largely to the land frontiers. Now the sea dimension will need to be factored in. Fourthly, like in the past, the PLAN will establish listening posts to actively monitor the IN in the region. And lastly, a PLAN presence, howsoever small, will divert large IN resources from the Western Fleet in the event of war. The threat would get exacerbated if the PLAN were to gain access to an airfield since that would provide a quantum jump to its maritime reconnaissance capability in the Indian Ocean.

    What should India do? India needs to actively engage the island nations in the Western Indian Ocean - Mauritius, Maldives, Seychelles and Madagsacar - diplomatically, economically and militarily to contain the Chinese footprint from spreading to these nations. Maldives, in particular, is of significance as it acts as a strategic forward outpost against any developments along India’s western seaboard. In the case of Seychelles in particular, India must neutralise any economic or commercial advantage that China offers to that country, thereby limiting its use for the Chinese as a `resupply` base. India may consider greater military assistance in the form of supply of naval equipment and training for the SPDF to fight piracy and poaching in its EEZ. In addition, the scope and deployment of the IN and its air arm must be considerably increased in the West Indian Ocean.