China on Monday said its naval fleet would only seek supplies or recuperate in the Seychelles during anti-piracy operations, denying reports that Beijing might break with its long-standing policy by setting up a military base overseas with a presence in the Indian Ocean archipelago.
The Chinese Defence Ministry reaffirmed that policy on Monday, saying its ships would only resupply in the Seychelles as they were already doing in other countries such as Oman and Yemen, while participating in anti-piracy escort missions.
"It is international practice for naval fleets to resupply at the closest port of a nearby state during long-distance missions,” the Ministry of National Defence said in a statement issued in response to reports which suggested China would establish an anti-piracy military base in the Seychelles.
China’s presence, it said, would be limited to its naval fleet “seeking supplies or recuperating at appropriate harbours in Seychelles or other countries as needed during escort missions". The arrangement, according to the Defence Ministry, would be similar to the practice of Chinese ships resupplying in ports in Djibouti, Oman and Yemen, where China has not established military bases.
On Friday, Seychelles Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Paul Adam said his government had invited China "to set up a military presence" on the archipelago to help against regular piracy attacks faced by the country, Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported.
The Seychelles has sought greater assistance from a number of countries to boost its capabilities to combat piracy, including India and the United States.
While the U.S. had already earlier established a drone base to help anti-piracy operations, India has also lent support to the country, agreeing last year following the visit of Defence Minister A.K. Anthony to Mahe to provide a new Dornier aircraft and two Chetak helicopters for maritime surveillance.
Seychelles’ invitation to China came following the visit of General Liang Guanglie – the first Chinese Defence Minister to visit the Seychelles – earlier this month, during which China agreed to give the country two light aircraft.
Mr. Adam said even if China agreed to set up an anti-piracy base, it “would not be the first foreign military presence here because the Americans already have a small drone base here,” AFP quoted him as saying.
Media reports in India have raised concerns over China setting up military bases in the Indian Ocean - fears that have become heightened after China’s naval presence in the region increased following the participation of its naval vessels in anti-piracy escort missions since 2008.
But Chinese officials and analysts say such fears are exaggerated, considering China does not yet have the capabilities to maintain a military base overseas. Some Chinese experts have, however, called on China to rethink its policy and not rule out setting up a military presence abroad in order to better protect its increasing international interests.
Earlier this year, the Chinese Foreign Ministry unusually contradicted statements made by officials in “all-weather” ally Pakistan claiming China had agreed to set up a naval base in the port of Gwadar.
Zhao Gancheng, director of South Asia Studies at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, told The Hindu then that the denial clearly underscored that China’s “principle that it will not build any overseas bases… remain[ed] unchanged.”
“To militarise the Indian Ocean facilities,” added Ashley Townshend, an expert on international security and the Chinese military at the Sydney-based Lowy Institute for International Policy, “Beijing would require local air defence capabilities, munitions storage units, mine-clearing assets and a permanent military footprint.
"These costly renovations would probably exceed the technical, logistical and expeditionary capabilities of the Chinese military for a decade or more,” he wrote in a recent article.