While welcomed by Seychelles officialdom, the proposed Indian military facility on Assumption Island has raised has raised environmental, employment and sovereignty concerns and prompted small but regular protests in the Seychellois capital, Victoria.
Under the terms of an agreement signed between the Seychellois and Indian Foreign Ministers on 28 January 2018 – itself a revision of the 2015 agreement signed by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his tour of the Indian Ocean island states – India will finance the construction of military infrastructure on the remote and uninhabited island over the next twenty years.
Despite substantial losses incurred during past periods of human habitation, Assumption Island retains significant marine and terrestrial biodiversity that environmental protesters fear will not be able to withstand a returned human presence. Still others have raised concerns that local workers may be passed over in favour of imported construction workers from India. The issue of a possible loss of control over the area was addressed by the stipulation in the revised agreement that India may not use Assumption Island in the event of war.
At six kilometres long and 1.6 kilometres wide, Assumption Island is a mere speck in the Indian Ocean. Remote even by the standards of the Seychelles, Assumption sits just above the northern entrance to the Mozambique Channel. At just over 1,100 kilometres to the south-west of the main island of Mahe, Assumption is considerably closer to Madagascar (418 km), Comoros (408 km) and Mayotte (373 km). On the East African mainland, the Tanzanian city of Dar es Salaam is only 867 kilometres to the north-west of Assumption.
Under the agreement, India will spend US$550 million ($705 million) to repair the existing jetty and airstrip and to construct quarters for the Seychelles Coast Guard personnel who may be deployed to the island. It is estimated that the facilities, when completed, will occupy around one-quarter of the island.
Although portrayed as an element of the apparent India-China rivalry in the Indian Ocean Region, the strategically-located base can potentially bring a number of security benefits to the surrounding area. For India, it demonstrates its credentials as a regional power and long-time partner. In ensuring the security of shipping in that corner of the Indian Ocean, India is able to show its support for the small island states and its commitment to the global commons. Any securing of influence at the expense of China would be a welcome by-product.
As a lightly-populated, far-flung archipelagic state, the Seychelles has a very large Exclusive Economic Zone of almost 1.4 million km2. The waters of the Seychelles are rich fisheries and protecting those resources from illegal and unreported fishing is vital to the economy. In the early 2010s, at the height of the piracy epidemic emanating from Somali at that time, the pirates’ reach extended well inside the Seychelles EEZ, threatening the fishing industry, commercial shipping and tourism operations. Maintaining vigilance against the reappearance of piracy will also be a motivating factor for the Seychelles. According to Michael Rosette, Commanding Officer of the Seychelles Coast Guard, ‘it currently takes over 40 hours to dispatch a coast guard vessel and three hours to dispatch a military surveillance plane if an incident occurred in the area but having personnel stationed there would cut the response time to around four to five hours.’
While the issue of workers is yet to be addressed in any detail, the Seychellois authorities have been clear in pointing out that the arrangement is not a lease and that control of the Assumption Island facilities rests with the Seychelles. Administratively, Assumption is managed by the parastatal Islands Development Company, which manages the more remote islands of the archipelago on behalf of the Seychellois Government under 99-year leases. Upon completion, the military base area will be returned to direct government control.
While Indian naval vessels and air force aircraft can, and no doubt will, use the Assumption Island facilities, India is prohibited from storing any weapons there and from using the base in a conflict.
An environmental impact assessment will be conducted but, according to the Department of the Environment, the base project will have little environmental impact. Given the continuing small but persistent public protests in Victoria at the possible environmental effects of the base, the Seychellois Government will need to do more to spell out the benefits of the project while ensuring that any environmental impacts on the pristine island are kept to an absolute minimum.