- - Wednesday, December 7, 2011

China offered Seychelles base

The small Indian Ocean island nation of Seychelles, strategically located near both the Gulf of Aden and the Somali coast, hosted an unusual three-day ceremonial visit by an important guest last week: Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Liang Guanglie.

Gen. Liang became the first-ever Chinese defense chief to pay the island nation a visit.

On Friday, Seychelles Foreign Minister Jean-Paul Adam dropped this surprise announcement: “We have invited the Chinese government to set up a military presence on Mahe [the main island of the Seychelles archipelago] to fight the pirate attacks that the Seychelles face on a regular basis.”

What was China’s response to this invitation?

Mr. Adam elaborated: “For the time being, China is studying this possibility because she has economic interests in the region and Beijing is also involved in the fight against piracy.”

That China is seriously considering this invitation seemed obvious. Traveling with Gen. Liang was a military team of some 40 officers.

China has eyed Seychelles’ strategic position for quite some time. In the Cold War years, Seychelles, some 1,000 miles away from Tanzania, a place China vigorously tried to turn into a client state during the 1960s and 1970s, was an important outpost for both the Soviet Union and China in their influence-peddling gambits in Africa.

The Chinese signed a defense agreement with the Seychelles in 2004, and Beijing has been training Seychelles military personnel ever since.

During the latest visit, the two nations renewed that agreement. China will provide additional training and equipment to the Seychelles armed forces.

As Somali piracy is a serious problem in its vast exclusive economic zone, the island nation recently began seeking international support.

Yet by comparison, the United States is falling behind China in reaching out to the Seychelles. During the height of the Cold War, while Seychelles was still under British rule, the U.S. Air Force operated a radar tracking station there. It was closed down in 1996.

Today, the United States doesn’t even have an embassy there, while China, Russia, India and Cuba all have busy diplomatic activities in the tropical state that connects Africa and Asia.

The only U.S. military presence is a tiny Air Force unit that operates an unarmed remotely piloted aircraft unit involved in regional anti-piracy efforts.

The prospect of a Chinese overseas military base in the heart of the Indian Ocean’s Seychelles has excited many inside China. The official hard-line communist newspaper the Global Times promptly published a lead article Tuesday with the headline: “It is absolutely necessary [for China] to establish overseas military bases; we must break obsolete concepts and self-restriction.”

The writer, Long Xingchun, is a Chinese visiting professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies based in Washington, D.C.

Pacific swimming pool

Two weeks ago, six advanced Chinese warships, including two of the People’s Liberation Army navy’s largest guided-missile destroyers, the Shijiazhuang and the Qingdao, two guided-missile frigates and an electronic surveillance ship, made an unannounced transit through the sensitive narrow waterway between Japan’s Okinawa and Taiwan. They then entered the Pacific Ocean for a major naval exercise.

It was the second such exercise in a year involving a Chinese naval formation “breaking” through what China has dubbed the First Island Chain — which Beijing claims is a maritime noose being used by the United States and Japan to strangle a rising China.

In June, an 11-ship naval contingent, including three Russian-built Sovremenny class guided-missile destroyers (type 956), passed through the same narrow waterway for what some in China called an anti-aircraft-carrier exercise.

On Nov. 22, the Japanese P-3C reconnaissance planes discovered the passing Chinese ships and began monitoring their activities.

Chinese state media reacted to Japan’s vigilance with displeasure. The state-run Xinhua News Agency published a harshly worded article Tuesday calling Japanese and American reaction to such Chinese naval exercises “reflective of a Cold War mentality.” An unidentified Chinese military official was quoted as saying, “The Pacific is nobody’s private swimming pool. … China must have its own Pacific fleet,” presumably to roam the entire ocean as it pleases.

Miles Yu’s column appears Thursdays. He can be reached at mmilesyu@gmail.com.

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