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India unease as China debates naval base in Seychelles

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China’s ministry of defence said the Seychelles would allow naval vessels to take on supplies in anti-piracy campaigns, but initiative is likely to viewed with unease in India.

Daniel Bardsley (Foreign Correspondent) and Suryatapa Bhattacharya

BEIJING // China is considering an offer from the Seychelles to set up a supply base for its naval ships, in a move to be closely watched by India.

Details of Beijing‘s tie with the Indian Ocean archipelago come as the Chinese navy holds sea trials for its first aircraft carrier and continues making double-digit defence spending increases that are strengthening the country’s naval power.

China’s naval ambitions are a concern for many of its neighbours, especially given the assertiveness Beijing has shown in recent maritime disputes with Japan in the East China Sea, and Vietnam and the Philippines over the South China Sea.

State media quoted the defence ministry as saying that the port in the Seychelles was still under consideration, while the Chinese authorities reaffirmed the country’s policy of not stationing troops overseas.

“China’s position is clear. China has never set up military bases in other countries,” said the foreign ministry spokesman, Liu Weimin.

China’s ministry of defence said the Seychelles would allow naval vessels to take on supplies, while Chinese ships were assigned to anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden.

The Chinese navy has previously taken on supplies in Oman, Yemen and Djibouti when carrying out missions against pirates from Somalia, Reuters reported yesterday.

“According to escort needs and the needs of other long-distance missions, China will consider taking supplies or recuperating at appropriate ports in the Seychelles and other countries,” said a defence ministry statement. But Joseph Cheng, a regional political analyst at the City University of Hong Kong, said it was “to be expected” that China would develop more advanced centres to support its growing navy.

He added that initially these would simply be supply bases of the kind proposed in the Seychelles but repair facilities would likely be developed later.

The issue of Chinese naval activity in the Indian Ocean is of particular interest to India, which has long-standing border disputes with China and is deeply suspicious of the country’s close ties with its archrival, Pakistan.

There was no official reaction from India’s government yesterday, but The Times of India said China’s initiative “was bound to create a degree of unease in New Delhi”.

Retired Brigadier Rumel Dahiya, the deputy director general of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi, said the move would go beyond a piracy-related issue.

“This is clearly a case of China trying to establish a greater base in the Indian Ocean. They are expanding their reach,” he said.

Christian Le Mière, a research fellow for naval forces and maritime security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said India may view any agreement with the Seychelles as “indicative of Chinese naval expansionism into India’s back yard”.

“It is not necessarily a direct threat to India, in much the same way that Diego Garcia [a US navy base] is not a direct threat to India currently. Arguably Chinese counter-piracy efforts are beneficial for global trade and hence for Indian interests as well,” he added.

The China Daily newspaper said the invitation from the Seychelles was issued during a visit by Liang Guanglie, the defence minister, earlier this month. It was the first time a Chinese defence minister has visited in 35 years. The Chinese navy has grown in recent years from a coastal protection force to one spanning the globe, sending ships as far as the Caribbean on goodwill missions and into the Mediterranean to escort vessels evacuating Chinese citizens from the fighting in Libya.

Meanwhile, Sri Lanka said yesterday it was “true friends” with China because of the military assistance Beijing provided during the island’s bloody civil war.

China’s influence in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Nepal and other surrounding countries is also a sensitive subject with India.

Also yesterday, US officials were investigating an American military drone that crashed at an airport on the Seychelles. It is used to target Al Qaeda-linked militants in Somalia.

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