Ten days before he arrives in India, New Delhi has sought a clarification from Seychelles President Danny Faure on his June 4 statement that the development of a military base on Assumption Island by India “will not move forward”, sources told The Indian Express.
Indian diplomats in Seychelles are trying to find out the intent and meaning of Faure’s statement, made at a live press conference in Victoria. The Seychelles News Agency had quoted him as saying, “In next year’s budget, we will put funds for us to build a coast guard facility on Assumption ourselves. It is important for us to ensure that we have a military post in this area.”
Sources said that while Seychelles funding its own coast guard facility was not an issue, India is hoping it would not be kept out of a project, envisaged as a 20-year agreement, that it sees as crucial to its strategic interests — particularly given China’s growing influence in the area. The Assumption Island is situated southwest of the Seychelles main island of Mahe, and falls in the Indian Ocean maritime routes.
Faure is scheduled to come to India around June 25 on a State visit to India. According to the Seychelles News Agency, the President also said that the military base issue would not be up for discussion in the meeting he holds with Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his trip. Faure has met Modi twice in the last three months, on the sidelines of the International Solar Alliance Summit in Delhi in early March and at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in mid-April.
Sources said that at the time he had assured that he was trying to tide over the challenges to the project, which has been facing domestic opposition. As first reported by The Indian Express, Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale had also made an unannounced visit to Seychelles on May 14-15, reportedly to iron out the problems.
“We have put in three years of negotiations into the agreement to develop infrastructure on the island. It is crucial for Seychelles to protect its maritime domain, and it is key to India due to its strategic location in the western periphery of the Indian Ocean. We need to know what the Seychelles establishment has in mind about the future of the project,” a source said.
Earlier, Faure had announced publicly that he would not place the agreement with India before the Seychelles National Assembly (its parliament) since he didn’t have a majority there. Unlike in India, the government has to get such a pact raitified by the National Assembly. Besides opposition parties, many private citizens and environment groups have raised concerns over the construction of a military base on Assumption.
Sources said the Seychelles establishment had indicated earlier that they would work with the administration to get the pact through. The Indian Express had first reported in October last year that the deal, signed between India and Seychelles in 2015 during PM Modi’s visit, was being reviewed due to the concerns in Seychelles. Former foreign secretary S Jaishankar had travelled to the island nation a day before he retired in January this year to sign a re-negotiated deal, which was said to be a more detailed and improved version.
“The 2015 agreement was a very basic agreement, with key areas outlined. Following re-negotiation, a lot of concerns of the Seychelles side were accommodated. The new text also spelt out the specifics and nitty-gritties in greater detail,” sources said. Unlike the 2015 pact in which the joint project monitoring committee was to be chaired by the Indian envoy, the 2018 version had the Indian envoy and Seychelles foreign secretary as co-chairs. The same template was decided for the joint working group.
The latest development comes almost three months after the two agreements, despite being confidential documents, surfaced on the Internet, sending alarm bells in South Block. A source said that while the Assumption Island project was “extremely crucial” for Delhi, it had to be careful in managing the political sensitivies of Seychelles as it goes forward.
The two countries have an established relationship in defence and maritime security, through which India helps patrol the waters of Seychelles and gives equipment to the island nation’s defence forces. In recent years, India has agreed to help Seychelles map its hydrology reserves, launched a coastal surveillance radar project and boosted security cooperation with the nation.