REPORTING FROM BEIJING -- In a move that is raising concerns about an ascendant China expanding its reach in the Indian Ocean, Beijing said it is considering an offer by the Seychelles to use its ports for resupplying and refueling naval vessels.
The Chinese Defense Ministry said, however, that its presence in the Seychelles would not rise to the level of a "naval base" and would be used mostly to support Chinese vessels guarding against Somalia pirates.
"Resupplying at a port close to operations is a common practice of all navies around the world," the Defense Ministry said in a statement Tuesday. "Since the beginning of its safeguarding mission in 2008, the Chinese navy has resupplied at ports in Djibouti, Oman and Yemen."
For years, military analysts have been warning of China's ambitions in the Indian Ocean. The country's recent launch of an aircraft carrier has further fueled those anxieties. An often-quoted classified report by U.S. government consultant Booz Allen Hamilton in 2004, which was later partially leaked to the media, said China was trying to acquire a "string of pearls" of naval bases that would eventually encircle India. That hasn't happened so far, and China has made a concerted effort to dampen speculation about its ambitions.
"They are going out of their way to say that it is not a base, the same way that the United States doesn't want to use the word in connection with Darwin, Australia," said Bonnie Glaser, a national security expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "If all they are doing is refuel, supply, maintenance and R&R, it's true that it would be premature to call it a base."
Liang Guanglie earlier this month paid the first-ever visit by a Chinese defense minister to the Seychelles. Jean-Paul Adam, foreign minister of the island nation off Africa's east coast, was quoted at the time as telling reporters: "We have invited the Chinese government to set up a military presence on Mahe [the largest island]. ... For the time being China is studying this possibility because she has economic interests in the region and Beijing is also involved in the fight against piracy."
The Seychelles government also said China had given its army two light aircraft and that Beijing had renewed a 2004 military cooperation agreement that allowed about 50 Seychelles soldiers to be trained in China.
Ni Lexiong, a military analyst with the Shanghai Institute of Political Science and Law, said Tuesday that he believed the Seychelles arrangement could eventually develop into a full-fledged naval base.
"The location would be perfect for a base eventually because it overlooks the east coast of Africa, but this is not our immediate intention," he said.
-- Barbara Demick
Photo: Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie at an Oct. 12 meeting of Southeast Asian nations in Hanoi. Credit: Nason Nguyen / Reuters