This week, the media spotlight fell on the small island nation of Seychelles, a former French and British colonial possession off the east coast of Africa. On Monday, China’s ministry of national defence announced that Beijing was considering using the port on the main island of Mahe for naval purposes, in response to an offer from Seychelles. On the same day, an American MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), part of a detachment that carries out regional counterpiracy and counterterrorism orbits from the airport near the harbor on Mahe, crashed on approach (although the recent loss of a more sophisticated UAV in Iran made headlines, this happens surprisingly often.)
Meanwhile, General Ma Xiaotian, deputy chief of the General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), arrived in Sri Lanka to meet with virtually every senior official on the island (itself a potential base of operations for the Chinese) even as the Chinese foreign ministry denied that a naval base was under consideration in Seychelles. By Wednesday, Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh was reacting to the fallout, within India and beyond, caused by the Chinese announcement. India’s defence ministry said on Tuesday that it did not see anything wrong with China setting up a military base in Seychelles, since this appeared to be part of Beijing’s efforts to combat piracy in the Indian Ocean region.
These events reflect at least in part an attempt to shape and manage perceptions. India, which hopes to one day establish itself as the dominant naval power in the Indian Ocean, naturally sees China’s efforts in the native waters of the Indian subcontinent as an affront to its own interests. India also fears it might be encircled as a result of China’s pursuit of security for its own supply lines. Politically, New Delhi cannot appear to be ceding ground to the Chinese in those waters, so it is natural for Singh to deny the significance of Beijing’s extensive efforts to establish relationships and agreements that solidify port access all along the Indian Ocean. This effort has existed long enough to pick up a colloquial label – the “string-of-pearls” strategy – that refers to ports in places such as Djibouti, Yemen, Oman, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar, that China is actively exploring.
Beijing, meanwhile, is committed to the idea of a “peaceful rise” — the concept that China is taking up its natural role in the international order. While the PLA and other security institutions occasionally issue aggressive statements —and even take aggressive actions (particularly in the South China Sea), the overarching narrative China has consistently used to represent itself is that of a nonthreatening, nonmilitary actor abroad. Military action has been cloaked in the guise of peacekeeping and international cooperation missions. (The PLA’s justifications for these actions actually closely mirror those Tokyo uses for similar actions by the Japan Self-Defense Forces, though the reasons are profoundly different.)
Underlying this dynamic are obviously more pragmatic military concerns. It is with intention that the United States Navy, along with other Western allied warships, already regularly calls on Victoria, Seychelles – and that US P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft and MQ-9 Predator UAVs operate from the city’s small airport. Victoria routinely hosts big-deck US amphibious assault ships that are larger than any currently in service with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), and are nearly as large and as long as the ex-Soviet Varyag currently being certified through regular sea trials as a training vessel for the PLAN.
China certainly calculates the benefit in strategic depth that Seychelles provides, compared to far more convenient ports along the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea. In this case, the island nation’s value to China is similar to that of Diego Garcia to first the British and now the Americans. But there are far more mundane considerations as well. Seychelles is a popular tourist destination for Western Europeans. With an economy that depends considerably on foreign tourism, it is probably no accident that Seychelles is reaching out to other countries that operate warships in the region, in hopes of drawing increasing visits by foreign sailors flush with cash from their months at sea.
Conversely, its status as a Western European tourist destination near the equator means that Seychelles is a far more attractive destination for downtime for sailors far from home -even compared to ports closer to ships’ area of operations, when those present considerable security challenges.
This is not a small point. Stratfor has long pointed out that as China expands its naval operations and seeks to provide the infrastructure for a sustained, long-range presence for the PLAN on a scale unprecedented in China’s history, Beijing must face not only real strategic issues like securing passage through the Strait of Malacca, but also the more mundane issues that have characterized global, sustained maritime operations since the Pax Britannia. Victoria’s becoming a port of call for PLAN warships hardly displaces the United States – nor does it establish Victoria as a viable strategic asset for Beijing. But Victoria’s status as a port of call for Chinese warships should not be overlooked as an important benchmark in the expansion of the operations and activity of the PLAN.