Our Doors are Open: Eagle’s Nest in the Land of Perpetual Summer

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Reopening of the United States Embassy in Victoria, Seychelles, on 1 June 2023. (Seychelles Nation/CC BY)

The US reopened its embassy in Seychelles after 27 years, aiming to counter China’s influence in the Indian Ocean and strengthen diplomatic ties. Both countries have fought for influence for a very long time and had established their presence before Seychelles became independent.

On June 1st, 2023, the embassy of the United States (US) in Seychelles resumed its operations after being closed for 27 years. This event was regarded as important for both countries, as both the Seychellois and Americans sent their top officials to attend the ceremony. Seychellois President, Wavel Ramkalawan, attended the opening ceremony, while the US sent Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Richard Verma.

The opening of the US embassy in Seychelles is part of a strategy to counter China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific region. Despite its small size, Seychelles plays an important role in the geopolitics of the Indian Ocean due to its abundant wealth. In order to understand how a small country became a battleground between two superpowers, we need to examine the country’s relation with the US and China and how both countries are vying for influence in the archipelagic state.

The History of Seychelles and its Ties with the US and China

The US established their formal presence in Seychelles long before the country became independent in 1976. There had been several but infrequent contacts between the Seychellois and Americans prior to its independence. A permanent contact was established through the construction of a satellite tracking station by the military in Mahe in 1963. The US official publication stated that employees in the station “maintained good relations with the people and the government”. Further contacts were made through the deployment of volunteers via the Peace Corps program in 1974.

Despite having no official presence in pre-independence Seychelles, people from China had already established a community in the country as early as 1886. Their presence grew through permanent settlements, worshipping places, ethnic organizations, and interracial marriages. The last governor of colonial Seychelles, James Mancham, had Chinese ancestry through his father. 

After years of colonial arrangement by the UK, two new political parties were established in Seychelles in 1964. The first party, the Democratic Party (DP), was established by barrister James Mancham and favored retaining ties with the British, while the second party, the Seychelles People’s United Party (SPUP), was led by lawyer France-Albert René and advocated for a full independence for Seychelles. SPUP and DP agreed to form a coalition government in 1975. After independence, Mancham and René became the young republic’s president and prime minister. 

The Lurking Great Powers

Shortly after becoming independent, Seychelles received recognition from the US and China. James Mancham recognized China despite his pro-Western stance. He developed friendly relations with Taiwan and continued supporting Seychelles as a British protégé. Mancham’s government received covert assistance from the UK, while he supported the construction of the US military base in Chagos Archipelago, several hundred miles away from the islands of Seychelles. 

Mancham’s rule in Seychelles did not last long, as he was overthrown by René in a coup d’etat. René was appointed as the president. His first action was dissolving the prime ministership and establishing a one-party state led by SPUP. René’s government became increasingly Marxist and alarmed the US as it grew closer to the Soviet Union. Seychelles began receiving large amounts of military assistance from the Eastern Bloc, and the Soviet Union’s embassy became the largest in Seychelles, being led by a senior intelligence agent. René’s government also introduced a youth caderization system that closely resembled Marxist nations. At the same time, René also tried to maintain balance by allowing the US to preserve their satellite tracking station. René also reaffirmed the existence of the Peace Corps through a treaty signed on June 9, 1978.

Relations between Seychelles and the US began to improve after the 1981 coup, which was an attempt to overthrow the René government with South African mercenaries. The Soviet Union tried to frame the US as the mastermind behind the coup. However, this was largely rejected by René, which stated that there is no indication of foreign involvement except for South Africa. René implemented his reforms by replacing Marxists officials. The country also began receiving visits from US naval ships and received military aid from the US. In response to this shift, the US began placing a resident ambassador in Seychelles.

Seychelles turned its head to China after René’s decision to re-introduce the country to multiparty democracy in late 1991, which was mostly triggered by the breakup of the Soviet Union and other communist states. Multiple visits by Seychelles officials to China and vice versa were made, as both countries began to intensify their bilateral cooperation. In response to the planned Hong Kong takeover by China in 1997, Seychelles and several countries began offering residence permits to attract Hong Kong residents in 1995. 

At the same time, Seychelles relations with the US deteriorated due to criticism of Seychelles’ human rights record and a law granting legal protection to anyone investing $10 million in the country. The US embassy and satellite tracking station in Seychelles were closed in 1996 under the guise of cost-saving, and it was not until the late 2010s that another agreement was signed between the two countries.

The Rise of the Dragon 

China’s influence over Seychelles grew larger as the country provided Seychelles with various assistance through grants and gifts in various sectors. Both countries also cooperated in defense since 2004 with the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding on Defence Cooperation, which authorized Chinese Armed Forces to train Seychellois soldiers. 

The next decade saw greater ties between both countries, as Seychelles received two surveillance aircraft from China in October 2011 to mark the 35th anniversary of their bilateral relations. China went further in December that year when it announced its plan to construct a naval port in Seychelles. However, the plans were canceled. The cancellation did not hamper cooperation in other sectors, as Seychelles officially exempted Chinese citizens from visa requirements in May 2013. The Seychelles-China Day, which began in early 2014, was an attempt by the Seychelles government to showcase its colloquial relations with China.

Seychelles was involved in China’s global infrastructure development project, the One Belt One Road Project. The country signed numerous agreements following the announcement of the project, including a memorandum of understanding in 2018. Seychelles also announced their willingness to promote the project in 2021.

The Eagle Prepares to Strike

After observing the colloquial relations between China and Seychelles, it might be worth questioning the role of the US. As international relations theorist Mearsheimer described, the US had been in a constant rivalry with China due to the latter’s growing power following the end of the Cold War. The US had been helping China to grow economically and align it with the Western order, but things soon backfired following the fall of the Soviet Union, as China became the main obstacle for the US in implementing a unipolar world order.

The US military still looms in the small island country. Seychelles signed a status of forces agreement with the US in 2009, which resulted in a significant increase in military activities. The military presence became more evident through the establishment of a drone base in the Seychelles International Airport. The base was kept confidential by the US but was revealed following a drone accident in September 2011. Despite claims that the drones were intended for tracking pirates near the waters of Somalia, the drones were instead used to attack terrorist groups related to Al-Qaeda in Somalia.

Cooperation in other sectors was much more sparse. The US and Seychelles have signed no more than three agreements during the course of the 21st century. Prior to the opening of its embassy, the US had attempted to increase its diplomatic presence through a virtual presence post in 2007, but not much was heard after that.

Behind the Eagle’s New Nest

The opening of the new US embassy could be viewed as an attempt by the US to cope with its static relations with Seychelles as well as to prevent China’s further expansion to the Indian Ocean. Both China and the US have consistently patrolled the Indian Ocean, especially the waters near Seychelles and its neighboring islands, and China’s attempt to build inroads from the Indian Ocean has raised concerns among US strategists.

Another reason as to why the US decided to reopen its embassy could be credited to its defence-based diplomacy. The satellite tracking station and the drone base was a prime example of US defence diplomacy in the region, which concerned the local population. As such, the opening of an embassy in Seychelles could be seen as an attempt to promote a softer and much more persuasive diplomacy by the US. 

Economic factors could also be the reason behind the embassy reopening. The drop in the country’s GDP due to the COVID-19 pandemic has created additional financing needs for Seychelles, and the US may see this as an opportunity to provide financial assistance and strengthen its diplomatic ties with the country. By reopening its embassy, the US could also demonstrate its commitment to supporting Seychelles during this challenging time and help facilitate economic recovery. 

Jeromi Mikhael is an international relations student with a keen interest in post-1945 Indonesian history, Indonesia’s defence policy, as well as the foreign affairs of African and Slavic countries. He is curious in researching new ideas and concepts as well as following the recent news on foreign affairs.


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