Chinese officials have recently been discussing the possibility of establishing a naval facility in the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean. Unlike the comments made by Chinese Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo last year when he raised the prospect of China establishing overseas naval bases, however, these comments appear to be approved by the Chinese leadership.
China’s expanding presence in the Indian Ocean region, often referred to as the “string of pearls,” has raised concerns from New Delhi to Washington. As Chinese companies have built port facilities in Burma, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan, the fear has been that this was the precursor to an enlarged People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) presence in the region. Yet, until now, all of those facilities were commercial. When Pakistani officials claimed that their country was offering China a naval, as opposed to commercial, facility at Gwadar, Chinese officials firmly denied that such a topic had even been raised. This makes the discussion of a Chinese naval facility in the Seychelles all the more surprising, as it marks the first time that the Chinese have officially indicated interest in establishing a naval foothold in the Indian Ocean region.
At this time, these discussions seem to involve only the reprovisioning of China’s anti-piracy patrol. Now in the midst of its tenth rotation, this is the most extended Chinese overseas military presence in PLA history. Given the distance from Chinese ports, it is not surprising that Beijing would like to have someplace closer where it could refuel, take on fresh water and fresh food, undertake basic repairs, and perhaps allow its crews some shore leave.
Yet, any permanent Chinese access to Seychelles facilities will undoubtedly arouse concern in New Delhi, especially as China is modernizing its forces and infrastructure along the Sino–Indian border (where tens of thousands of square miles remain in dispute).As the recent crash of a U.S. Predator drone highlighted, the U.S., too, has an interest in the Seychelles.
The latest Chinese move should also be seen in light of expanding Chinese presence at the two ends of the Indian Ocean basin. Recent revelations of Chinese access to Australian space telemetry facilities, as well as longstanding access to space facilities in Malindi, Kenya, for example, suggest that Chinese interests in the Indian Ocean are not solely naval in nature.
China’s interest in the Seychelles does not necessarily presage a military surge into the Indian Ocean region. Nonetheless, it marks a definite shift for Beijing, from purely commercial to a much more mixed status.