INS Satpura during a visit to Seychelles

by Pradip R Sagar

The Seychelles Coast Guard receives a patrol ship handed over by the Indian Navy in 2014 | State House, Office of the President of the Seychelles

New Delhi's efforts to strength its strategic presence in the Indian Ocean has apparently received a major setback after the Seychelles government said 'no' to India's plan to set up a military base in the archipelago nation.

Though Seychelles is yet to officially communicate its decision to India, the Seychelles government has stopped proceeding with the move, following growing opposition in the island nation. Seychelles President Danny Faure is scheduled to visit New Delhi by the end of this month.

If the collapse of the naval base plan is confirmed, it would be another major loss for India in the Indian Ocean in just a few months after New Delhi lost its grip on the Maldives, following political developments after the imposition of emergency on the island nation. Maldives, which was considered a close ally of India once, had turned down repeated requests from India to lift the state of emergency.

Amid a growing Chinese presence in the region, effectively encircling India commercially and militarily, New Delhi is working hard to counter Beijing's footprint in the neighbourhood. In order to salvage the crucial agreement with Seychelles, Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale also made a hurried visit to Seychelles in May.

The decision to jointly build a naval base was announced during the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Seychelles in March 2015, when both sides agreed to the development of Assumption Island.

India has plans to invest $550 million to build facilities to enhance the maritime surveillance and search and rescue capabilities of Seychelles. Besides, deploying Indian troops for training of Seychelles' soldiers, an agreement was signed to renovate an airstrip in the island, upgrade its jetty and construct housing facilities for the Seychelles Coast Guard. Assumption Island, located over 1,000 km southwest of Mahe island, is vital for tracking maritime routes in the Indian Ocean.

Last week, Seychelles President Danny Faure made an announcement allocating budgetary provisions to build coast guard facilities on Assumption Island, without mentioning India by name. His ruling party came under severe criticism from the opposition and many environmentalists over fears of an influx of Indians and concerns over the country's sovereignty.

India and Seychelles signed an MOU on defence cooperation in 2003. In 2009, India decided to send its warships to do joint patrolling in the country's exclusive economic zone (EEZ) against Somali pirates. With an aim to strengthen Seychelles' maritime surveillance capability, India also donated rotary-wing aircraft, patrol boats and a Dornier maritime surveillance aircraft to the island nation.

Moreover, as part of the 2015 agreement, India has built a chain of six coastal radar stations, which are manned by Seychelles Coast Guard personnel, but provide vital inputs to the Indian Navy to keep a 24 x 7 vigil of the activities in the Indian Ocean region.

"Having a naval base in Seychelles will be a strategic advantage to India to counter China's growing presence as well as provide commercial benefits," said a defence official.