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February 18, 2016
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The New Year and the western Indian Ocean

Islamabad

February 18, 2016

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For much of South Asia and region surrounding the Indian Ocean, the new year began on an inauspicious note. The respite following the sudden sojourn of Indian PM to Pakistan last December and brief engagement with his counterpart in Islamabad was short lived. The terror attack on the Indian airbase at Pathankot in the first week of the year quickly dampened the ballooning hopes of fresh beginning in the bilateral relations. This has been a usual pattern since 2001. For a change however and unlike in the past, political leadership on both sides displayed level-headedness. Each side refrained from upping the ante and there were some cool-headed discussions on electronic media as well. With some guarded optimism, hopes in the continuity of dialogue and improvement in relations hence remain alive.

In other simultaneous turbulent developments, fresh bad blood occurred between Riyadh and Tehran following the execution of a prominent Shia cleric, one amongst the 47 mass executed on January 2. It has send ripples across the Muslim world. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran are important players in the Middle East with fairly large stakes in the western Indian Ocean region. The two wield and contest for influence in the developing regional geo-politics. While Saudi Arabia is Pakistan’s strategic partner, Iran is a neighbour. Both wield influence on Pakistan’s security albeit in a varied fashion.

From the western Indian Ocean perspective a key development, which perhaps escaped larger public attention was last December 22 declaration by James Michel, the President of Seychelles. A plot of land is believed to have been allocated by the Seychelles government to India in the Assumption Island for construction of a naval base. Once completed, it will be New Delhi’s first overseas naval base. On paper, the island is being leased for tourism infrastructure development, but in reality India is establishing a listening and surveillance post to monitor large swathes of the western Indian Ocean.

Seychelles republic in the western Indian Ocean comprises of some 115 Islands, Assumption island being one. The islands are home to lush tropical vegetation, beautiful beaches, and a wide variety of marine life. Situated between latitudes 4 degree and 11 degree South and longitudes 46 degree and 56 degree East, the major islands of Seychelles are located about 1,000 miles east of Kenya and about 700 miles northeast of Madagascar. Seychelles got independence from Britain in 1976. Its capital, Victoria is situated on the island of Mahé.

Being strategically located to project power throughout the western Indian Ocean, various world powers have vied for control of Seychelles all through the cold war. This goes on to this day. During the visit of a US General in 2009, President Michel described Seychelles as an, “aircraft carrier in the middle of the Indian Ocean without the planes”. No wonder the US maintains considerable presence in Seychelles which includes above others, P3C maritime surveillance aircraft and Reaper drones.

The roots of current Indian interest in Seychelles rest in May 2010 visit of President Michel to Beijing. The Chinese reportedly offered to supply an offshore vessel. As if to preempt any further warming of relations between Seychelles and Beijing, in June same year New Delhi announced writing off half of the Seychelles debt to India. This was quickly followed by visit of the Indian defence minister to Victoria. It was decided to institutionalize the previous adhoc defence cooperation. India also agreed to provide second off-shore patrol vessel to Seychelles to the previous gifted in 2005.

Today India extends training to Seychelles special forces for VIP protection, commando and diving operations and has provided a maritime security advisor, a military advisor and naval advisor to the president of Seychelles.  The Indian navy conducts regular anti-piracy patrols and hydrographic surveys in Seychelles waters and New Delhi is about to complete construction of coastal surveillance radar system on chain of Islands. In December 2011 after Seychelles offered Chinese warships returning from anti-piracy patrol in the Gulf of Aden to visit port Victoria, President Michel was quick to reassure New Delhi that no military facilities will be provided to Beijing.

Regardless, in his recent interview with an Indian daily, President Michel unmasked the secrecy surrounding the project. “This is a joint project between India and Seychelles involving our two defence forces in enhancing our mutual security along our western seaboard. Seychelles is absolutely committed to the project”, declared President Michel. Seychelles will now be accordingly, a major naval base for Indian navy outside India.

With the provision of large segment of land, India is now all set to construct a major staging post for large maritime security complex and thus exercise greater control over the western Indian Ocean region.The influence will extend from east to west and up and to the coastline of east Africa. The Indian naval operations will be backed by the coastal radar system scheduled to commence function from March 2016. The system will provide India with capability to monitor traffic, gather intelligence and assist in surveillance and influence of the strategic sea lines of communication criss-crossing the region. Thanks to the steady and resolute support of New Delhi, beginning December 20 last year, President Michel is running his third term in office.

India’s drive to control the Indian Ocean cuts on the previous precarious stability in the Indian Ocean. This is over and above its unpromising and maturing Pakistan specific doctrines. The latest assertive step by New Delhi in Seychelles renders the western Indian Ocean even less stable than it seemed before.

Be that as it may, both Pakistan and China have increasing stakes in the western Indian Ocean. The two are now strategic partners in this ocean expanse. Following full functioning of Gwadar port and CPEC in not too distant future, cooperation between the navies of the two sides is expected to go further up. “Pakistan Navy is ready and capable of providing security to all the maritime traffic likely to be generated once Gwadar port is made functional under the CPEC in about six month’s time”, so stated Vice Admiral Arifullah Hussaini, Commander Pakistan Navy Fleet in a recent press briefing at Karachi.

Given the ongoing geo-political currents and the developing maritime security course of events in the Indian Ocean, bilateral cooperation between Pakistan and PLA (Navy) is steadily rising. Large-scale multipurpose exercises are gaining currency. In recent display of this cooperation, Pakistan and PLA (Navy) conducted major manoeuvres in Shanghai and adjoining seas.Two major surface ships of Pakistan Navy with embarked helicopter on board on a visit to Shanghai, joined good number of PLA (Navy) units including ships, submarines, fighter aircraft and helicopters to execute multitude of operations.

Pakistan’s resolve to ensure stability through effective deterrence in the Indian Ocean was later reiterated in no uncertain terms. “Despite the arms race started by India, Pakistan will maintain a balanced fleet but we will maintain minimum credible deterrence to face any threat”, said the country’s Fleet Commander in the media briefing on January 5.

The author is a freelance journalist. He frequently contributes on maritime and other security related issues.

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