Facing trouble in Seychelles over developing the Assumption Island for strategic purpose and growing Chinese influence prompting political opposition, Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale quietly made an unannounced visit to the island nation this week, where he met President Danny Faure.
New Delhi is also working on an official visit by Faure to Delhi around June 25-26, sources told The Indian Express. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) did not announce Gokhale’s visit.
This comes almost two months after the confidential agreement to develop the strategically-located Assumption Island surfaced on the Internet in March this year, which caused alarm in South Block. The remote Assumption Island is situated about 1,140 km southwest of the main island of Mahe, and is key to tracking the Indian Ocean maritime routes.
Top sources said Gokhale’s visit was aimed at gauging the level of opposition and ways to overcome the challenges that have come up after the classified documents became public.
The Indian Express had first reported in October last year that the 2015 deal was being reviewed, due to concerns in Seychelles.
Gokhale was in Seychelles on May 14-15 to pick up the threads left behind by his predecessor, S Jaishankar, who had travelled to the island nation a day before he retired in January and had signed the re-negotiated deal with Seychelles.
“The Assumption Island project is extremely crucial for us. But, given the political opposition, we have to be careful on how to manage the political sensitivities in the island nation. Some of it seems to be fuelled by our rivals in the region who do not want us there,” a source said.
The Seychelles government supports the new 20-year deal, but members of the opposition in the National Assembly have opposed it. Some in the Indian establishment blame China, which is a strategic rival in the Indian Ocean region.
The 2018 agreement is said to be a more detailed and improved version of the 2015 pact, signed between the two countries when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Seychelles.
The development of infrastructure on Assumption Island is a key part of India’s proactive maritime strategy, as it counters China’s moves in the Indian Ocean region, and is regarded a “strategic asset” in India’s arsenal.
“The 2015 agreement was a very basic agreement with key areas outlined. Following re-negotiation, a lot of the concerns from the Seychelles side was accommodated in the revised text of the agreement in January 2018. The new text also spelt out specifics and the nitty-gritty in greater detail,” sources said.
Unlike in 2015, when the joint project monitoring committee was chaired by the Indian envoy, the 2018 version had the Indian envoy and the Seychelles Foreign Secretary as co-chairs. The same template was followed for the joint working group with the Indian envoy and the Seychelles Foreign Secretary as co-chairs.
The two countries have an established relationship in defence and maritime security, through which India helps to 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.
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