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.
- China to Set Up Military Base in Indian Ocean (ktrmurali.wordpress.com)
- China says mulling Seychelles naval hosting offer (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- China considers Seychelles military base plan (telegraph.co.uk)
- Breakout: China to establish its first military base abroad in the Indian Ocean (theextinctionprotocol.wordpress.com)
- China says mulling Seychelles naval hosting offer (nation.com.pk)
- Ships may dock but no Indian Ocean military base, says China (thehindu.com)
U.S. Africa Command/Major Eric Hilliard – The Seychelles, where the U.S. had temporarily stationed MQ-9s under the operational authority of U.S. Africa Command, now houses a base where a small fleet of “hunter-killer” drones resumed operations this month.
By Craig Whitlock and Greg Miller
Published: September 20
The Obama administration is assembling a constellation of secret drone bases for counterterrorism operations in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula as part of a newly aggressive campaign to attack al-Qaeda affiliates in Somalia and Yemen, U.S. officials said.
One of the installations is being established in Ethiopia, a U.S. ally in the fight against al-Shabab, the Somali militant group that controls much of that country. Another base is in the Seychelles, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean, where a small fleet of “hunter-killer” drones resumed operations this month after an experimental mission demonstrated that the unmanned aircraft could effectively patrol Somalia from there.
The U.S. military also has flown drones over Somalia and Yemen from bases in Djibouti, a tiny African nation at the junction of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. In addition, the CIA is building a secret airstrip in the Arabian Peninsula so it can deploy armed drones over Yemen.
The rapid expansion of the undeclared drone wars is a reflection of the growing alarm with which U.S. officials view the activities of al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Somalia, even as al-Qaeda’s core leadership in Pakistan has been weakened by U.S. counterterrorism operations.
The U.S. government is known to have used drones to carry out lethal attacks in at least six countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. The negotiations that preceded the establishment of the base in the Republic of Seychelles illustrate the efforts the United States is making to broaden the range of its drone weapons.
The island nation of 85,000 people has hosted a small fleet of MQ-9 Reaper drones operated by the U.S. Navy and Air Force since September 2009. U.S. and Seychellois officials have previously acknowledged the drones’ presence but have said that their primary mission was to track pirates in regional waters. But classified U.S. diplomatic cables show that the unmanned aircraft have also conducted counterterrorism missions over Somalia, about 800 miles to the northwest.
The cables, obtained by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, reveal that U.S. officials asked leaders in the Seychelles to keep the counterterrorism missions secret. The Reapers are described by the military as “hunter-killer” drones because they can be equipped with Hellfire missiles and satellite-guided bombs.
To allay concerns among islanders, U.S. officials said they had no plans to arm the Reapers when the mission was announced two years ago. The cables show, however, that U.S. officials were thinking about weaponizing the drones.
During a meeting with Seychelles President James Michel on Sept. 18, 2009, American diplomats said the U.S. government “would seek discrete [sic], specific discussions . . . to gain approval” to arm the Reapers “should the desire to do so ever arise,” according to a cable summarizing the meeting. Michel concurred, but asked U.S. officials to approach him exclusively for permission “and not anyone else” in his government, the cable reported.
Michel’s chief deputy told a U.S. diplomat on a separate occasion that the Seychelles president “was not philosophically against” arming the drones, according to another cable. But the deputy urged the Americans “to be extremely careful in raising the issue with anyone in the Government outside of the President. Such a request would be ‘politically extremely sensitive’ and would have to be handled with ‘the utmost discreet care.’ ”
A U.S. military spokesman declined to say whether the Reapers in the Seychelles have ever been armed.
“Because of operational security concerns, I can’t get into specifics,” said Lt. Cmdr. James D. Stockman, a public affairs officer for the U.S. Africa Command, which oversees the base in the Seychelles. He noted, however, that the MQ-9 Reapers “can be configured for both surveillance and strike.”
A spokeswoman for Michel said the president was unavailable for comment.
Jean-Paul Adam, who was Michel’s chief deputy in 2009 and now serves as minister of foreign affairs, said U.S. officials had not asked for permission to equip the drones with missiles or bombs.
“The operation of the drones in Seychelles for the purposes of counter-piracy surveillance and other related activities has always been unarmed, and the U.S. government has never asked us for them to be armed,” Adam said in an e-mail. “This was agreed between the two governments at the first deployment and the situation has not changed.”
The State Department cables show that U.S. officials were sensitive to perceptions that the drones might be armed, noting that they “do have equipment that could appear to the public as being weapons.”
To dispel potential concerns, they held a “media day” for about 30 journalists and Seychellois officials at the small, one-runway airport in Victoria, the capital, in November 2009. One of the Reapers was parked on the tarmac.
“The government of Seychelles invited us here to fight against piracy, and that is its mission,” Craig White, a U.S. diplomat, said during the event. “However, these aircraft have a great deal of capabilities and could be used for other missions.”
In fact, U.S. officials had already outlined other purposes for the drones in a classified mission review with Michel and Adam. Saying that the U.S. government “desires to be completely transparent,” the American diplomats informed the Seychellois leaders that the Reapers would also fly over Somalia “to support ongoing counter-terrorism efforts,” though not “direct attacks,” according to a cable summarizing the meeting.
U.S. officials “stressed the sensitive nature of this counter-terrorism mission and that this not be released outside of the highest . . . channels,” the cable stated. “The President wholeheartedly concurred with that request, noting that such issues could be politically sensitive for him as well.”
The Seychelles drone operation has a relatively small footprint. Based in a hangar located about a quarter-mile from the main passenger terminal at the airport, it includes between three and four Reapers and about 100 U.S. military personnel and contractors, according to the cables.
The military operated the flights on a continuous basis until April, when it paused the operations. They resumed this month, said Stockman, the Africa Command spokesman.
The aim in assembling a constellation of bases in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula is to create overlapping circles of surveillance in a region where al-Qaeda offshoots could emerge for years to come, U.S. officials said.
The locations “are based on potential target sets,” said a senior U.S. military official. “If you look at it geographically, it makes sense — you get out a ruler and draw the distances [drones] can fly and where they take off from.”
One U.S. official said that there had been discussions about putting a drone base in Ethiopia for as long as four years, but that plan was delayed because “the Ethiopians were not all that jazzed.” Other officials said Ethiopia has become a valued counterterrorism partner because of threats posed by al-Shabab.
“We have a lot of interesting cooperation and arrangements with the Ethiopians when it comes to intelligence collection and linguistic capabilities,” said a former senior U.S. military official familiar with special operations missions in the region.
An Ethiopian Embassy spokesman in Washington could not be reached for comment Tuesday night.
The former official said the United States relies on Ethiopian linguists to translate signals intercepts gathered by U.S. agencies monitoring calls and e-mails of al-Shabab members. The CIA and other agencies also employ Ethiopian informants who gather information from across the border.
Overall, officials said, the cluster of bases reflects an effort to have wider geographic coverage, greater leverage with countries in the region and backup facilities if individual airstrips are forced to close.
“It’s a conscious recognition that those are the hot spots developing right now,” said the former senior U.S. military official.