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HomeOpinionAssumption Island deal could help India regain lost ground in Indian Ocean

Assumption Island deal could help India regain lost ground in Indian Ocean

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India’s ties with Seychelles have gained more prominence after China opened its military base in Djibouti.

In a major strategic breakthrough and diplomatic victory, India and Seychelles have agreed to work together on a project to develop a naval base at the Assumption Island.

India also announced a $100-million dollar credit to Seychelles for expanding its defence capabilities during Seychelles President Danny Faure’s visit to India early this week.

At a lunch hosted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the visiting president enthralled everyone with his singing and sitar-playing skills.

His opponents back home could be waiting to accuse him of singing the Indian tune. New Delhi, however, played its cards well to humour the Seychelles president while keeping its eyes firmly trained on the stalled Assumption Island project. The project is extremely important for India to establish its foothold in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

Next to Mauritius, Seychelles is the most important defence partner for India in the IOR. Ties with Seychelles have gained more prominence after China opened its military base in Djibouti, a small but strategically located country along the gateway to the Red Sea. The country with less than a million population houses military bases of the US, Japan, France and Italy. Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates have also stationed their anti-terror operatives in Djibouti to counter alleged Iran-backed militia and Houthi rebels. All this has practically turned Djibouti into a new flash point in the IOR.

Although China has officially claimed its facility to be just a supply and refuelling base for their peace-keeping and anti-piracy operations, Djibouti is used for a variety of strategic reasons in keeping with Xi Jinping’s agenda of ‘expanding the geography’ and increasing trade with Africa.

Last month, Pentagon lodged a complaint with the Chinese authorities over its nationals allegedly pointing lasers at US military aircraft near Djibouti. The US also issued a ‘Notice to Airmen’ (NOTAM), advising aviators to use “extreme caution” while flying over the area.

Over the last few years, China is in possession of powerful and blinding laser weapons such as the BBQ-905 Laser Dazzler Weapon, the WJG-2002 Laser Gun, the PY131 and 132A Blinding Laser Weapons.

As part of its “string of pearls” agenda to encircle India in the IOR, China turned to Seychelles with a proposal to construct military base and provide soft loan for other infrastructure projects.

In 2012, Seychelles had reportedly offered to lease islands to China for constructing a base for providing relief and resupply facilities to the People’s Liberation Army Navy. Following this, several Chinese military officials, including vice military chief Wang Guanzhong, visited Seychelles for follow-up.

In a quick and strategic move, India and Seychelles signed an agreement in 2015 for constructing and operating joint military facility on the Assumption Island, situated to the north of Madagascar, strategically located to keep an eye on a large area of the Indian Ocean, a route commonly used for smuggling drugs as well as for piracy and several other illegal activities. The deal, however, got stalled because it could not be ratified by the Seychelles parliament during the previous president’s regime.

The revised agreement signed in January this year and endorsed by the Seychelles president provided for a $550-million joint naval base project, managed by both countries, a pier for combative ships as well as a landing strip for fighter planes, quarters for the Coast Guards of Seychelles, and allowing India to use these infrastructural facilities as forward base.

A condition in the agreement stated that India would not be able to use these facilities on the Assumption Island in the event of a war. The deal, however, was held up by the Opposition coalition, which has a majority in the National Assembly mandated to ratify any deal.

As China expands its sphere of influence in the IOR, Nepal and other countries in India’s periphery, New Delhi needs to urgently recalibrate its diplomatic and economic engagement in the region, and revitalise Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), SAGAR, BIMSTEC and other multilateral initiatives with renewed vigour.

The author is former editor of ‘Organiser’.

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