Beijing is testing strategic waters in India’s backyard


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Jun 29, 2009
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Beijing is testing strategic waters in India’s backyard

Beijing is testing strategic waters in India’s backyard IDRW.ORG

When he leaves his calling card in the island state of Seychelles next week, Chinese President Hu Jintao will raise the stakes in the unfolding competition with India for naval influence in the Indian Ocean.

As Hu embarks on the first Chinese presidential visit to a Western Indian Ocean island state, New Delhi might be hard pressed to protect its own growing economic and security relationship with Seychelles.

The exotic islands of Seychelles might be a favoured destination for rich honeymooners, but they hardly figure on the travel itinerary of the world leaders, let along those of the great powers. No wonder then that the South Block mandarins are raising eyebrows at Beijing announcement that Seychelles is the last stop in Hus eight-nation African tour beginning Tuesday.

New Delhis security establishment has come to believe, somewhat complacently, that the Indian Ocean will eventually be India. One of the principal consequences of Hus visit to Seychelles would be to dispel that delusion.

India has not been unaware of the growing Chinese interest in the Indian Ocean island states. Sustaining access to the oil riches of the Persian Gulf and the mineral wealth of Africa has become an important national security objective for Beijing.

Amidst the rising profile of the Chinese Navy in the Indian Ocean, New Delhi was certainly conscious of the Chinese attempts at establishing military links with the island states.

Seychelles might not have many people; its population today is barely 85,000. Its sprawling 115 islands, however, make Seychelles one of the most important real estates in the Indian Ocean. Although the land area of Seychelles is only 435 sq km, it has an Exclusive Economic Zone of nearly 1.3 million sq km.

While international oil companies are beginning to explore for hydrocarbons in its waters, the worlds naval powers have always understood the military significance of Seychelles, close to some of the most important sea lanes in the world.

A couple of years ago, India had to pre-empt a Chinese offer on naval assistance to Seychelles. In February 2005, the Indian Naval Chief, Adm Arun Prakash, gifted the INS Tarmugl to the Seychelles Coast Guard.

The Naval Headquarters here considered the request from Seychelles so urgent that it decided to pull the ship out of its own fleet barely three years after commissioning. Delay on Indias part would have seen Chinese Navy stepping in.

Having won that brief diplomatic skirmish, India could not have anticipated that Beijing would queer the pitch for New Delhi by fielding its top political gun in Seychelles.

For the moment though, Indias presence in Seychelles is robust. Seychelles has about 6000 people of Indian origin. Indias economic presence is marked by Bharti Airtel which runs a local telecom network.

India has trained large numbers of police and military men from Seychelles. A memorandum of understanding on defence cooperation was signed when then Vice President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat visited Seychelles in 2003. India had also gifted a few helicopters to Seychelles over the years. Indian naval ships routinely visit Seychelles.

High-level visits between India and Seychelles have been frequent, and have included a visit by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi way back in 1981. However, China now is all set to compete with its intense high-level political attention.

Seychelles President James Alix Michel was in Beijing last November to participate in the first China-Africa summit. Barely three months later, Hu is on a return visit to Seychelles. Given the small size of Seychelles economy and the limited nature of its requirements, China has few difficulties in rapidly expanding its influence in the island state. HuÃs visit next week will underline Beijing political will to build an enduring strategic presence in the Western Indian Ocean.

Hus sojourn in Seychelles comes at a moment, when China is actively seeking to establish its maritime presence in a number of Indian Ocean states, including Sri Lanka, Maldives, Mauritius and Madagascar. No one doubts India’s desire to retain its foothold in these geopolitically crucial island states. But question marks remain on whether India has a strategy to cope Chinas dramatic entry into the Western Indian Ocean.

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