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CWA # 29, 26 June 2018

India External
India and Seychelles: Is the Assumption Deal a Game Changer in the Indian Ocean?

  Divyabharathi E

Regardless of whether the Assumption deal pushes ahead will inevitably rely upon India's diplomatic treatment of the issue when Faure visits India. New Delhi must approach the issue adeptly with the goal that Faure's visit does not get caught in domestic power politics

Research Scholar, Department of International Studies, Stella Maris College, Chennai

India’s relationship with Seychelles is on choppy waters following the agreement to establish a military base on Assumption Islands. Seychelles' reported decision to cancel the agreement with India to jointly develop a naval base on the Assumption Island adds to a long list of New Delhi's setbacks in the Indian Ocean region (IOR) amidst Beijing's growing economic and strategic footprints. 

With a determination to safeguard India’s maritime interests in the IOR, New Delhi is preemptively reaching out to visiting Seychelles President Danny Faure, who will be hosted in India across five cities. Will New Delhi convince Victoria to ratify the deal? Will Indian diplomacy be successful to serve its maritime interests? Will India establish a base in Seychelles to closely monitor China’s BRI activities? Will this deal materialize trilateral cooperation between India, Seychelles and France?

The Assumption Deal
This deal was primarily signed between the Modi Government and the then Seychelles government under James Michel in 2015 which however could not be ratified in the Victorian parliament. Following Faure's coming to power in late 2016, discussion with India on the deal was revived. Deliberate endeavours were made by the two sides to resolve the differences, and the re-negotiated deal was in the long run marked by India's then foreign secretary, S Jaishankar, in January this year amid his Seychelles visit.

Importance of the Deal
India’s interest in penning this deal to set up a joint naval base has the following  strategies

  • Firstly, this deal is to ensure safe passage of ships and containers in the southern IOR.
  • Secondly, this deal is to give leverage to Indian Navy to closely monitor the Mozambique Channel and forestall any piracy attempts since it is one of the busiest global trade transits in the world.
  • Thirdly, this deal will help Seychelles patrol its 500,000 sq miles EEZ for illegal fishing, poaching drug trafficking and piracy, and its ratification would have made India's relationship with Seychelles truly strategic.
  • Lastly and primarily, this deal can facilitate India to counter China’s increasing presence and securitization of the IOR, where the latter had already established military bases in places like Djibouti, Sri Lanka.

However, this deal was not ratified by Seychelles’ Parliament thanks to the opposition’s strong accusation on Faure’s government on undermining the country’s interests. Though this was clarified by President Faure, the opposition doesn’t want to compromise on the issue. Despite the fact that Seychelles has a Presidential form of government the parliament has significant powers of oversight, leveraging the Leader of the Opposition’s staunch neglecting the deal. Despite India’s consistent efforts to court the Ramkalawan, Opposition leader, turns to remain opposing the deal.

Why is Seychelles Opposing?
The presence of Indians in Seychelles is viewed with suspicion by a section within the country. These groups fear that an influx of workers from India would impact on its economy as they think this would ultimately lead to Indian dominance in the national economy. Some of the ultra-nationalist groups consider, had this deal been materialized, would incur an insult to national pride and also it would impinge on Country’s sovereignty over its own territory.

In order to dispel this negative thought, India had announced in March a series of high-profile civil projects for Seychelles amounting to more than $8 million. For the construction of a state-of-the-art Magistrate's Court with all modern amenities, a sum of $3.45 million was earmarked. India also provided a grant of $3.5 million to the Seychelles Public Transport Corporation to purchase 71 buses from TATA Motors. Two other agencies to benefit from India's grant are Seychelles' Health Care Agency and the Anti-Narcotics Bureau. This, however, has not been able to brighten the deal's prospects.

The China Wall in the Indian Ocean
China has been forcefully endeavouring to dissolve India's geographical and soft power focal points in the IOR. There are issues over the objectives of China's gigantic interest in infrastructure projects in India's more extensive oceanic neighbourhood, where there is no obvious economic advantage. China's sneaking infiltration in the IOR and its surroundings to court small IOR littoral states, for example, Sri Lanka and the Maldives are striking.

Specifically, India's progressing strains with the Maldives are a sign of India's strategic going under danger. The ongoing advancements have put the close India-Maldives security relations under expanding pressure. The issues have been around ever since President Abdulla Yameen came to control a couple of years prior yet got ugly in February when the Maldives announced a highly sensitive state of emergency.

The present government appalled over the sentencing of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed to long terms in jail without giving them a reasonable trial. The circumstance turned out to be so awful in April that the Yameen administration requested that India reclaim two Dhruva helicopters gifted to Male in 2013. The Modi government has more than once accentuated that without upgrading India's maritime presence in the IOR, New Delhi can't plan to practice an adequate level of influence similarly as Chinese power develops exponentially. Despite the fact that India's web of economic and military linkages is substantially stronger with Seychelles, which stays outside the China-drove Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Beijing has been pushing for Seychelles to become part of its maritime Silk Road venture. 

It is a well-known fact that India's dismissal of the BRI activity is somewhat focused on the country's sovereignty and territorial integrity and partly on unsustainable debt burdens. In spite of India's full membership into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), whose other seven members have completely embraced the BRI, Modi at the Qingdao summit did not change India's principled stand on the task. Along these lines, Seychelles' staying outside the BRI system has been an Indian gain until now, and the Assumption Island arrangement can additionally enable India to have a stronghold in the region, other than observing Chinese maritime exercises.

Way Ahead for India

Regardless of whether the Assumption deal pushes ahead will inevitably rely upon India's diplomatic treatment of the issue when Faure visits India. Modi might absolutely want to see more about what Faure has as a top priority about the eventual fate of the deal. In any case, New Delhi must approach the issue adeptly with the goal that Faure's visit does not get caught in domestic power politics.

The Indian government should seriously explore the possibility of sending a bi-partisan parliamentary delegation on a 'goodwill mission' to Seychelles, as this will not only boost the democratic bond between the two countries but also help in gauging the perspectives across the political spectrum.

As France has a solid strategic command toward Seychelles, India will likewise get a possibility of India-France-Seychelles trilateral collaboration. In March, India and France have met up for strategic partnership on the western side of the IOR. The "Joint Strategic Vision of India-France Cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region", marked amid President Emmanuel Macron's India visit, expresses that India and France share common concerns on free navigation and would bolster more noteworthy coordination in territorial and international fora in the area. This can prove to be the real game changer.

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