Wednesday, September 23, 2009

No country is small if it is surrounded by the sea. If you need to ask someone why that statement is true, I suggest you ring up the director of national defense of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Maj. Gen. Qian Lihua. On Sept. 1, he visited the Republic of Seychelles, an archipelago of some 110 islands scattered in the western part of the Indian Ocean. He arrived at the head of a high-level military delegation to sign an agreement of military cooperation.

“The Chinese Ministry of Defense and the Seychelles People’s Defense Forces (SPDF) have since 2004 been working together to develop and build cooperation between our two forces,” he said. “We have laid a good foundation for the future development of our bilateral and military to military relations.”

Or you could ask Stuttgart-based commander of the U.S. African Command, Gen. William E. Ward. A few days after Seychelles signed the military agreement with China, the United States rushed him to Seychelles to assure the nation’s leaders that the United States is committed to “a partnership toward the common objective of peace and security in the region and around the world.”

No American ambassador was present at that meeting, because unlike China, Russia, India, the United Kingdom, France and even Cuba, the United States does not maintain an embassy in Seychelles. So instead, a military general was sent to mollify us while the Chinese strengthen their relationship with the leaders of Seychelles.

Of course, as the founding president of the Republic of Seychelles, deposed by Marxist rebels in 1977 and forced into exile for 15 years, I knew the strategic and global importance of the islands that have now become a vacation paradise for wealthy visitors from around the world — many of them American celebrities and movie stars. After the end of the Cold War, I was allowed to return home and did so in the spirit of national reconciliation with a view to bring unity in the country and to work for world peace. Now, I am in the United States this week to pose the question: How can the United States say, in one breath, that its relationship with Seychelles is important, but not important enough to maintain an embassy and full diplomatic status?

The Seychelles has always been a sleeping strategic giant. In fact, during the Napoleonic War, the British and the French for many years fought over the islands until the Treaty of Paris of 1814 recognized that the Seychelles had become British.

After the Falkland Islands war, the late U.S. Adm. Robert J. Hanks of the Institute of Strategic Studies here in Washington came up with a report of limited circulation. Adm. Hanks said that were it not for the fact that the United Kingdom controlled the island of Ascension, Britain never would have been able to recover the Falklands because the friends of the United Kingdom were also friends of Argentina. Furthermore, Adm. Hanks was of the opinion that strategically located islands had the potential of being regarded as “unsinkable aircraft carriers.”

The growing competition for power and influence in the Indian Ocean, the world’s primary energy and trade seaway, has certainly put the Seychelles at the center of superpower rivalry, not unlike the position held by another island resort in the 1950s more familiar to Americans than our nation — Cuba.

The signing of a military collaboration agreement in peacetime or in the fight against piracy is one thing, but how such an agreement becomes effective in a moment of crisis and confrontation is certainly a matter for serious concern and conjecture.

While on the “military basis” both the United States and China could consider the situation “balanced,” the Chinese appear to be winning diplomatically. The Chinese are operating with full ambassadorial presence and are extremely active in day-to-day people-to-people diplomacy.

Sadly, at the end of the Cold War, after Seychelles had hosted a U.S. tracking and spying station on its main island of Mahe for more than 25 years, the United States withdrew its ambassador from Seychelles on the grounds that the State Department had to make budgetary savings in order to find the necessary funding for new embassies it was opening in Eastern Europe.

By acting in this manner, the United States sent the unfortunate signal that its presence in Seychelles was purely motivated by its perceived “national interest” rather than respect for the sovereignty of the Republic of Seychelles and the pride of the Seychelles people. For this reason, when Chinese President Hu Jintao made an official visit to Seychelles some months ago, he was very much applauded when he told the people that China will not be a “fair weather friend.”

This provokes me to ask: What weather conditions need to be in place for the United States to reopen its embassy and play its own role of people-to-people diplomacy?

Sir James Mancham, K.B.E., is the founding president of the Republic of Seychelles.

Copyright © 2023 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide