By Teshu Singh
The republic of Seychelles has come in news with the stationing of the Chinese troops in Mahe. The archipelago nation is located at a strategic location as it lies in the path of major shipping lines. This has raised a pertinent question as to what has provoked China to station troops in Seychelles. Is piracy the only reason for this or there are other ulterior motives behind the stationing of the troops?
It is not the first time that China is stationing its troops in Seychelles, China – Seychelles relations date back to 1976. Defence cooperation between Seychelles and China started in October 2004. As a part of the military cooperation agreement in 2004, China is already training fifty Seychelles People’s Defence Forces (SPDF) soldiers. In addition, the Chinese Navy’s hospital Ship- Peace Ark visited Seychelles in November 2010 and two Chinese frigates visited in April 2011 for the first time.
The President of Seychelles visited China to mark 35 years of diplomatic relations in October 2011. And as a part of their military ties, they gifted the SPDF two Y-12 aircraft for surveillance and anti-piracy. As a part of their larger diplomatic ties Chinese Defence Minister Gen. Liang Guanglie visited Seychelles, on 3 December 2011, with his 40 member delegation. As an effort to combat piracy in the region the republic of Seychelles, invited the Chinese troops on their land. The nature of these troops will be limited to naval fleet only. Nevertheless these troops are not to protect the supply stop in Seychelles and will seek supplies or recuperate in escort missions.
China already has the resupply facilities in Djibouti, Oman and Yemen since 2008 in the Gulf of Aden and it has not established a military base there.
Piracy has become a complex problem at the high seas in general and Horn of Africa in particular. Seychelles has become the primary target of the pirates since it is the destination of wealthy tourists. A Seychelles commercial tour yacht Serenity which was travelling from the country’s far islands south to Madagascar in April 2009 as captured by a group of Somali pirates. Ever since then it has become a regular phenomenon. This was followed by more hijacking in subsequent years of vessel near the Seychelles, including a small cruise ship, a scientific research vessel, and several more yachts. In 2009 Seychelles government paid US$ 50 million to the Somali Pirates to free their vessels/property.
Piracy has become a rooted problem in the region and China has a vested interest in combating piracy. Seychelles is the first point of stop for Chinese merchant vessels. Chinese economy is heavily dependent on the usage of the sea lane off coast of Somalia; a prime target of the pirates. Hence securing these sea lines of communication for energy and raw materials is important for the Chinese economy. Considering, the immense strategic importance of the region it is no surprise that China is interested in the region and it largely supports any effort to fight piracy.
Today, China and Seychelles stand as a “model for relations between small and big developing country”. Both countries look positively within the framework of the forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). The two countries will be celebrating the 150th anniversary of settlement of the first Chinese in Seychelles. The archipelago nation follows policy of nonalignment and supports the policy of reduced superpower presence in the Indian Ocean and is one of the proponents of the Indian Ocean Zone of Peace.
Thus any chance of Mahe becoming a prospective naval base seems to be a remote possibility. Though the stationing of troops has raised doubts about China’s “military base” in Seychelles which might lead to an increase in Chinese influence in the region surpassing that of the US in Africa. Nonetheless, China is not the only country which has stationed troops, an Indian Dornier surveillance aircraft (under construction) was given to the SPDF for maritime surveillance within the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in February, 2011. In addition two Chetak maritime choppers were provided to fight against sea pirates. India hails the Seychelles efforts to combat piracy and has initiated a series of maritime operations to check piracy. In 2009 US Africa Command (AFRICOM) had put together a US military base in Seychelles. American military drone had earlier been used to monitor piracy off the East African coast.
Also, it takes a lot of technological and economic transfer for turning any refueling base into a military base. Chinese military is undergoing a modernization program and it does not yet have the capability to maintain a military base overseas.
Research officer, IPCS
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About the author: IPCS
IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.