The Republic of Seychelles has issued China with an open invitation to establish an anti-piracy base in the small island republic. If accepted, this invitation will have security and strategic consequences for the region.
On December 3rd 2011, as part of a ‘goodwill’ trip to the Indian Ocean island nation of Seychelles, Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie met with Seychelles President James Michel and announced a boost in military cooperation between the two states. It was the first time a Chinese defense minister had visited the islands in the nations’ 36 years of ‘uninterrupted partnership’.
During the trip, Michel announced that the island republic would officially invite China to establish a military base there to help with its ramping up of efforts to combat piracy. The Republic of Seychelles spans an archipelago of over 100 islands approximately 1,500 kilometers off the eastern coast of Africa, just north of the island nation of Madagascar. Despite efforts by the international community and the constant patrolling of warships, this region is still heavily affected by organized (and unorganized) piracy by non-state actors.
Foreign Affairs Minister of Seychelles, Jean-Paul Adam, stated, “Together, we need to increase our surveillance capacity in the Indian Ocean […] as Seychelles has a strategic position between Asia and Africa.” According to one report by Agence France-Presse, Seychelles and China signed on to a military cooperation agreement in 2004 which “has enabled some 50 Seychelles soldiers to be trained in China.” Adam reminded the media that China has already given two light aircraft to the Republic, with the visit by Liang signaling a renewed agreement with China for increased financial support, military equipment and further military training. Chinese media reiterated Seychelles’ adherence to the One-China policy.
But while this cooperative agreement may seem rather insignificant, military analysts in Washington have cited this agreement as a “warning” that demonstrates China’s ambitions in the Indian Ocean.
“China certainly has an interest in combating piracy in the Indian Ocean. They have requested that regional countries grant them naval base facilities – as happened in Kenya. They currently have warships patrolling the pirate corridor, and no official place for them to rest. Trade is a huge part of their economy; protecting trade is clearly a matter of national security for China,” Deborah Brautigam, professor at the American University’s School of International Service, told ISN Insights.
A String of Pearls?
China’s recent launch of an aircraft carrier is fueling these anxieties in Washington. According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, “An often-quoted classified report by US government consultant Booz Allen Hamilton in 2004, which was later partially leaked to the media, said China was trying to acquire a ‘string of pearls’ of naval bases that would eventually encircle India. That hasn’t happened so far, and China has made a concerted effort to dampen speculation about its ambitions.”
One analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington explained to the Los Angeles Times that “[China is] going out of their way to say that [this] is not a base, the same way that the United States doesn’t want to use the word in connection with Darwin, Australia.”
The move has some American analysts concerned, specifically because Seychelles already houses a small American drone base used to patrol pirate activity and conduct US surveillance missions over Somalia. India is also likely to be concerned by this development.
“If [China] sets up a base in the Seychelles this would be a huge step, but an inevitable one. They aren’t going to depend forever for their security on our Western defense umbrella,” Brautigam explained.
“The exact nature of the base is important. If the Seychelles is offering up a massive base, with shipyard support, fuel depots and airfield, that could have a huge strategic meaning in the Indian Ocean and East Africa region. On the other hand, if the offer is simply one of allowing a few days of rest and recreation for Chinese crews along with ordinary refueling and replenishment, that has much less strategic importance. A small ‘anti-piracy’ base may mean that the Chinese counter-piracy force has a convenient rest area to break up long deployments and a staging area for combating piracy near the Seychelles,” retired Navy Reserve Captain Mark Tempest told ISN Insights.
Like all major economic actors throughout history, China has a rightful concern about security along trade lines – especially when it comes to those routes where access is only possible by sea. Because piracy off the coast of Somalia has proven to be relatively resilient and resistant to the increased patrolling efforts of Western countries, a Chinese ‘anti-piracy’ base is a probable indication of its willingness and capability to protect its growing economic interests on the African continent.
“It is [also] in Seychelles’ best interests to encourage as many naval powers as it can to participate in counter-piracy operations because Seychelles cannot afford the types and numbers of ships that are needed to fight piracy on the high seas (or even in Seychellois national waters). It is essentially offering up bases in exchange for protection,” Tempest explained.
For the short term, this development enhances China’s rising role in Africa, which is perhaps indicative of its larger grand strategy. For the long term, the more relationships the Chinese establish and maintain around the globe, the less effort in accessing key strategic military bases if and when the US’ status as sole superpower diminishes or is lost. Until then, the island nation of Seychelles is welcoming China with open arms – and the waters off the eastern coast of Africa are set to gain yet another naval actor.
Jody Ray Bennett is an independent writer, researcher and journalist. His areas of analysis include the global defense industry, private military and security companies and the materialization of non-state forces in the global political economy.