Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) shakes hand with Seychelles President Danny Faure after presenting a model of Dornier aircraft during a joint press statement at Hyderabad house in New Delhi on June 25, 2018. India will be handing over a Dornier aircraft to Seychelles on June 26. / AFP PHOTO / MONEY SHARMA

The highly classified India-Seychelles agreement, signed during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the archipelago in 2015, was leaked in March this year. The document detailed how India was developing military infrastructure on Seychelles’ Assumption Island. 

The leak also included the revised India-Seychelles pact signed on January 27, texts, maps, a detailed project report, location-dimensions of a proposed airstrip, installations and videos.

Angered by the leak, the Seychelles Opposition coalition, led by Indian-born Wavel John Charles Ramkalawan, who also intends to contest the country’s 2020 presidential election, refused to ratify the pact. The Seychelles government also ordered an inquiry into the incident.

The agreement

In his 2015 visit to Seychelles and Mauritius, Modi secured agreements for the joint development of Assumption Island and Agalega in Mauritius. In a speech in Seychelles, after signing the agreement, Modi said, “Our agreement today on development of infrastructure in Assumption Island gives strong boost to this partnership.” But media outlets described the two as India’s first overseas military bases and nothing was done to dispel the reports.

At the time when the agreement on Assumption Island was signed, James Michel was the Seychelles president. Danny Faure succeeded him on October 16, 2016, and in the intervening 19 months, Michel reportedly did not share details of the agreement with the opposition. India did not pursue a ratification from the Seychelles parliament either, despite knowing about the impending government change. India apparently also did little to cultivate the Seychelles coalition opposition in the new government.

While visiting India in January, Ramkalawan blamed the Seychelles government for not foreseeing constitutional roadblocks to the agreement, and for slowing down its implementation. He also reiterated that Assumption Island was not a military base for India. But he indicated that a modified agreement would possibly be ratified by the Seychelles parliament by the end of March 2018 – which eventually did not happen due to the leak.

China’s political warfare

Under the 2015 agreement, India was to station personnel on Assumption Island to carry out design, construction and facilities development work, as well as for operational and maintenance training. Under the modified agreement of 2018, Indian obligations include conducting hydrographic surveys, carrying out marine, aviation, communication and surveillance infrastructure work, training Seychelles defense forces, and funding the entire project. The 2018 agreement also mentions that the island will continue to be owned by Seychelles, while the facilities will be “jointly managed” by Seychelles and India.

Under the 2015 agreement, India was to station personnel on Assumption Island to carry out design, construction and facilities  development work, as well as for operational and maintenance training

President Faure stated in a press conference, before visiting India in June this year, that Seychelles would develop military facilities on Assumption Island on its own, and that the project with India “will not move forward.” But after India brought up the issue during Faure’s visit, Modi said at a joint press conference that the two sides had “agreed to work on the Assumption Island project based on each other’s rights.”  Meanwhile, Faure said, “[The] Assumption Island project was discussed, we are equally engaged and will work together bearing each other’s interests.”

But the agreements signed during Faure’s visit make no mention of Assumption Island. Given the opposition’s recent stance on the deal, and with the next presidential election due in 2020, it remains to be seen if Faure can get the deal ratified in parliament.

Further, if the 2015 deal was indeed secret, observers wonder why India decided to announce the joint project at all, instead of letting Seychelles handle it. China never announced the takeover of Gwadar Port – only its development by a Chinese company was reported in foreign media. Hambantota was also swallowed gradually. China even continues to deny the extent of its role in the development of bases in Jiwani (Pakistan) and Gadhoo (Maldives). While China remains geopolitically far ahead, India couldn’t even cultivate the Seychelles opposition, despite its leader being of Indian-origin.

The India-Seychelles pact leak was well timed, and could have been planned by anyone – in Seychelles or abroad. The 2015 media reports about Assumption and Agalega, together with Modi inaugurating a coastal surveillance radar station in Seychelles, could have raised Chinese suspicions. Indians and Chinese each account for 0.4% of Seychelles’ population. Modi was the first Indian prime minister to visit the archipelago in 34 years, but Hu Jintao, China’s former president, visited Seychelles in 2007.

During Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie’s 2011 visit, Seychelles reportedly offered a port to supply ships fighting piracy. China’s official statement read, “According to escort needs and needs of other long-range missions, China will consider seeking supply facilities at appropriate harbors in Seychelles or other countries.” Seychelles is also part of the 18-19 strategic support bases planned by China in the Indian Ocean region. China has trained Seychelles People’s Defense Forces soldiers and undertakes development works in Seychelles periodically. All Chinese development projects abroad have covert PLA/ Special Forces presence, a lesson in perception building that India fails to implement.

While China remains miles ahead in political warfare, India will likely struggle to resolve the Assumption Island faux pas, for which its foreign policy, complacency and unwarranted rhetoric can be blamed. For now, the world is witnessing India’s “Neighbours First” policy turned on its head, no matter the propaganda.

Prakash Katoch

The author retired as lieutenant general from the Indian Army's Special Forces.

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