Seychelles in the Spotlight, the United States returns to the Indian Ocean island.
Seychelles became the latest in a string of small nations around the world where the US has plans to open an embassy as part of a broad pushback against China's growing influence.
Returning to the Seychelles
The US Air Force tracking station that monitored Soviet satellites from this island's soaring tropical forests was a focal point of Seychelles life during the Cold War. The nearby American servicemen and technicians hosted barbecues and bar nights to which all Seychellois were invited, as well as distributed cookies and milk to local children and taught them basketball.
The Cold War ended, the Soviet Union collapsed, and the Americans left in 1996, dismantling the tracking station and closing their embassy, citing budgetary reasons for leaving what had seemingly become an irrelevant corner of the world.
The compound where the Americans and Seychelles partied is now home to the Seychelles Tourism Academy, where young islanders training to be tour guides, hoteliers, and masseuses take classes in Chinese, among other subjects — just one small manifestation of a new geopolitical rivalry that has now enticed the Americans back.
In June, Seychelles became the latest in a string of small nations around the world where the US has established, restored, or plans to open an embassy as part of a broad pushback against China's growing influence after more than two decades of neglect or disinterest on the part of the US.
Seychelles welcomes Uncle Sam
All are on small islands that Washington deemed insufficiently strategic to warrant the expense of maintaining a diplomatic presence, including Seychelles, Tonga, and the Solomon Islands, where embassies were established this year, and the Maldives, Vanuatu, and Kiribati, where embassies are planned, according to the State Department. Seychelles is an example of how America's absence allowed Chinese influence to flourish.
China has built schools, hospitals, low-income housing, and public amenities in the 27 years since the US left, gaining sympathy among Seychellois who felt abandoned by the US departure. Officials in the Seychelles say they are delighted to see the Americans return, but they also acknowledge that China is most likely the main reason for their return.
Indian Ocean emerges as an arena of competition
The majority of the new embassies are located in the Pacific, which is a strategic priority for China. The return to Seychelles demonstrates how the Indian Ocean is also emerging as a battleground between Washington and Beijing.
The Indian Ocean, which is bordered by Africa, Australia, India, and the Persian Gulf, is one of the world's most strategically important waterways, serving as a transit point for 80 percent of global seaborne trade — which accounts for more than 80 percent of total trade, according to the Carnegie Endowment's Indian Ocean Initiative and the International Chamber of Shipping. Importantly, China relies on it for 80 percent of its energy needs.
As Washington's focus shifted, Beijing's involvement in the region increased. China established its first overseas military facility in Djibouti, on the northwestern edge of the Indian Ocean, in 2017.
The Defense Department identified five Indian Ocean countries, including Seychelles, among a dozen locations where China has "likely" considered opening new bases in a 2020 report. China is also the only country that has maintained diplomatic missions in all six Indian Ocean island nations that were previously represented by three US embassies, according to Darshana Baruah, director of Carnegie's Indian Ocean Initiative.
Taking pleasure in the spotlight
So far, the return has gone well, according to James Donegan, who relocated to the Seychelles to serve as the United States' charge d'affaires until a permanent ambassador is appointed. "All I can tell you is that I'm glad we're back, the Seychellois are glad we're back, and we're going to look to the future," he said.
Donegan stated that maritime security is a top priority for the United States in its new relationship. The United States held its first naval military exercise with France and Seychelles in March, and more maritime cooperation is planned to assist Seychelles in combating the island's major external challenges of piracy, drug smuggling, and human trafficking.
According to US officials, the return is motivated by more than just countering China's presence. Despite the fact that Seychelles has been a multiparty democracy for the past two decades, elections in 2020 brought an opposition party to power for the first time, and the US wants to support what they describe as the country's first democratic transition.
"I'm not saying there isn't concern about the Chinese presence and what the influences could be, what the strategic implications could be, but I wouldn't want to narrow it down to a reductionist approach and say it's purely a zero-sum matter of US-China," said Henry Jardine, the de facto current ambassador to Seychelles based out of the US Embassy in Mauritius.
Adhering to neutrality
The foreign minister, Radegonde, stated that there is little doubt that China is a driving force. "The United States returning cannot be because we are lovely people," he said, adding, "We are."
Seychelles appears to be enjoying the attention and hopes that it will translate into more assistance from all of the countries vying for influence, including India, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia, as well as the United States and China, according to Ramkalawan, the president.
It is also determined not to become embroiled in any rivalries, he said. "It's good if the US sees us as pro-Western, the Chinese as friends, and the Indians as valuable partners." This means that we are adhering to the principle of neutrality."