Navy looks at offer from Seychelles

Updated: 2011-12-13 06:53

By Li Xiaokun and Li Lianxing (China Daily)

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BEIJING - The navy is considering taking on supplies in the Seychelles while conducting escort missions to tackle piracy.

Military experts stressed that the move did not equate to establishing military bases.

"According to escort needs and the needs of other long-range missions, China will consider seeking supply facilities at appropriate harbors in the Seychelles or other countries," the Ministry of Defense said in a statement on its website on Monday.

The statement was in response to a recent report that the Seychelles invited China to establish a military base in the Indian Ocean archipelago to crack down on piracy during a visit by Defense Minister Liang Guanglie, the first by a Chinese defense minister, earlier this month.

The Press Trust of India news agency later interpreted this as Beijing reneging on its promise not to build military bases abroad.

"In a move that may cause unease in India," the agency said, "China on Monday announced that it will set up its first military base abroad". The Seychelles, about 1,500 kilometers off the African coast and about 3,000 km southwest of India, is the smallest African state in terms of population.

Some sections of the US media expressed concern that such a "military base" in the Seychelles will lead to Chinese influence surpassing that of the US in Africa.

Li Jie, a professor at the Naval Military Studies Research Institute, told China Daily "as China will not send troops to protect the supply stop in the Seychelles, by no means can it be called an overseas military base".

Beijing has repeatedly confirmed that its policy of not stationing troops abroad will not be altered. It stands alone among the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council in not having overseas bases.

Due to anti-piracy missions off the coast of Somalia, it is only natural for Beijing to ensure naval supplies, Li said.

Defense Ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng said on Nov 30 that China has sent 10 escort missions and more than 8,000 officers and soldiers to the Gulf of Aden since it commenced anti-piracy duties in 2008.

The navy has escorted more than 4,300 vessels, including those from the United Nations World Food Programme and protected 50 vessels that had been earlier attacked by pirates, he said.

Navy ships have used facilities in Djibouti, Oman and Yemen to take on supplies, according to the Ministry of Defense.

"It is international practice for navies to take on supplies at the closest port of a nearby state during long-distance missions," the ministry said.

Peng Guangqian, a Beijing-based military strategist, said facilities allowing ships to take on supplies cannot be called military bases because "China respects the host's sovereignty and internal politics, and no political conditions are attached".

"Besides, it will be solely used for logistics and supplies," he added.

Li Qinggong, deputy secretary of the China Council for National Security Policy Studies, said that any arrangements over the use of facilities will be mutually beneficial with jobs provided for people in the Seychelles and the navy better able to protect China's growing overseas interests.

With 115 islands scattered in the Indian Ocean, a population of 85,000 and an army of just 500, the Seychelles had been seeking foreign assistance.

Its president, James Michel, made an appeal to world leaders this month to pay more attention to the situation in Somalia to ensure regional security. Ships use sea lanes in the Indian Ocean to transport more than two-thirds of the world's oil.

The Defense Ministry statement said that during Liang's visit the Seychelles expressed appreciation for China's efforts to ensure safe navigation on the Indian Ocean, as well as general support China had given to the Seychelles.

"The Seychelles also invited China's navy to re-supply in the country during escort missions," the ministry said.

The US has a drone base in the Seychelles which is used to combat piracy.

Li Qinggong also said reports about the Chinese military had been misinterpreted recently.

The report of President Hu Jintao telling a meeting of military officers last week that the navy should "make extended preparations for warfare" grabbed headlines across the world.

However, "to strengthen and modernize the defense forces and ensure military preparation are major concerns for the Chinese military", Li said.

"Hu has reiterated the importance of these two tasks at almost all major military conferences, so there is no change in policy."