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China - India - USA and the Indian Ocean: Seychelles has a role to play

Seychelles’ vulnerabilities in the geo-political context

Feb 22, 2016

Seychelles founding President Sir James R. Mancham shares his views with the role India-China-the United States plays in the Indian Ocean and what it means for his country, the Republic of the Seychelles.

A few years, ago I told an audience of presidents of the Pacific island nations at an international conference in Tokyo, Japan that they should pray to God Almighty that the only oil they ever discover on their islands is coconut oil, telling them that if they were to discover the real stuff, then the likelihood is that they would not be the master of their destiny anymore. Perhaps I should also have told them that their islands do not become the center of geo-political attention by the competing big powers.

I must say that I have been taken by surprise that while there [has] been an excessive amount of debate of and concerning the situation within Seychelles, the question of Seychelles’ vulnerability in the ever increasing militarization of the Western Indian Ocean region by the competing big powers never became an issue of concern and debate especially in the recent announcement that Seychelles had come to an agreement with India for a base on the island of Assumption.

In its issue of Monday February 15, 2016, Today in Seychelles carried a ‘big interview’ with Shari Villarosa, who was wrapping up as the United States’ Ambassador to Seychelles based in Mauritius after three years of service. I am surprised that Today in Seychelles did not ask the lady as to what were the views of the US government with respect to Seychelles’ decision to come to an agreement with India for a base on the island of Assumption.

Would the US have reacted otherwise and become more interested in that issue if the base agreement was with the People’s Republic of China as opposed to India? In the context of Ambassador Villarosa’s interview I found the explanation as to why the US had not reopened its embassy in Seychelles to be in the least “ambivalent”. Some of her patronizing statements concerning our situation suggest far too much the ‘might is right’ approach of some of the big powers at this time of world history.

How secure today is Seychelles sovereignty at a time when India has decided that the Indian Ocean would be the priority focus of their foreign policy? Perhaps the new generation of Seychellois voters are not sufficiently aware of certain historical features like the forceful annexation of the sovereign government of Zanzibar by Tanganyika on April 26, 1964 which resulted in the birth of Tanzania. Nor would they remember that the island of Goa was under the sovereignty of Portugal when it was forcefully annexed by India on December 19, 1961 and made India’s 25th State.

For many years India was the leader of the non-aligned movement and against this background stood for a policy of Indian Ocean being a zone of peace. Consequently, India along with the Soviet Union pro-actively opposed the American naval build-up on the island of Diego Garcia. With China’s recent strategic move in the Indian Ocean, this is no more the case. The USA and India today find themselves in the same camp. From the Indian as well as the American point of views the Rajapaksa administration in Sri Lanka was considered to be too close to China for their comfort and as such his policies were considered against the interest of the West and India.

Thankfully for the US and India the presidential election of 2015 provided the opportunity to remove Rajapaksa peacefully. New Delhi was sanguine of Mr. Sirisena’s victory and rumors have it that Prime Minister Narendra Modi called Mr. Sirisena to congratulate him on his election victory well before the vote counting was completed. The new president elect Sirisena was to reassure the West and India that things were on the mend, although China had invested billions of dollars in infrastructure development including the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka.

Obviously the Seychelles is caught in the currents of shifting geo-political alignments. Today the US perceives China as a strategic concern not only in the Indian Ocean but also in the Pacific region. So China is not only seen as a long-term threat in the pacific region but also in the India Ocean. The US can use Diego Garcia to deal with any threats emerging in the region, bolstering its armed resources drawn from Australia, Singapore and Guam. This will be further reinforced with India’s willingness to share greater responsibility in containing China all along the Indo Pacific region as reflected in India’s increasingly strong posturing not only in the Indian Ocean region but now also in East Asia.

In my last book ‘Seychelles – The saga of a small nation navigating the cross-currents of a big world, I made a point to project the need of good navigation of our ship of State if we were not to be caught in the cross-currents of the competing forces. Of course I was ever so mindful of the dictum: “There are no permanent friends or enemies, but permanent interest in international relations”. Indeed, as a small state our ability to assert our own independent policy to safeguard our national interest becomes very limited when the country is caught in the middle of big or regional power rivalries. Seychelles being small in population, geographic and economic terms has no options other than to fit into the agenda of big original powers. Many governments in power must maintain a delicate balance in dealing with the conflicting interests with very big neighbor India on the one hand and its trade and investment partner China on the other.

In this country there is, therefore, a need for this issue to be subject of an all-party agreement if the Seychellois’ interest is the overriding consideration. Partisan division in this respect will be disastrous and big power involvement in local presidential and parliamentary elections will constitute the most important threat to the survival of our democracy, however imperfect it may be today. It is therefore time for us to put a close to internal bickering and take note of the need for national unity to keep the ship of State on the best course commensurate with Seychelles’ national interest.

Seychelles’ vulnerabilities in the geo-political context

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