As China concerns grow, India looks to build military presence in Seychelles

A rocket is fired from the Indian Navy destroyer ship INS Ranvir during an exercise drill in the Bay of Bengal, April 18, 2017.

New Delhi (CNN)The Seychelles is not typically associated with geopolitics. But beyond the white sandy beaches and tropical jungles, the tiny archipelago nation is emerging as a key player in India's battle to counter growing Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean.

Late last month, India and the Seychelles signed a revised agreement granting India permission to construct a military base on the Seychelles' Assumption Island, roughly 1,650 kilometers (1,025 miles) east of mainland East Africa.
The deal, which follows several years of diplomatic negotiations, will provide India with a crucial military staging point in what is fast becoming a critically strategic region.
    In 2016, approximately 40 million barrels of oil per day -- equivalent to just under half of the world's total oil supply -- traveled through Indian Ocean entry and exit points, including the Straits of Hormuz, Malacca and Bab el-Mandeb.
    India, which has more than 7,500 kilometers (4,700 miles) of coastline and sits at the very center of the Indian Ocean, is dependent on free and open access to those same shipping lanes for trade.
    According to the Indian Ministry of Shipping, around 95% of the country's trade by volume, and 70% by value, comes via the Indian Ocean.

    Chinese consolidation

    India's attempts to better secure its access to the region mirrors a similar strategy deployed by its neighbor and long-standing rival China.
    Under Chinese President Xi Jinping, China's naval reach has grown considerably, expanding far beyond its immediate coastline into areas not previously considered within its sphere of influence.
    In July last year China established its first overseas military base in Djibouti, near the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, among the world's busiest shipping lanes and one of three crucial Indian Ocean arteries.
    The strait, which is only 29 kilometers (18 miles) wide at its narrowest point, connects the Mediterranean Sea via the Suez Canal, and the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean beyond.
    The opening of the Djibouti base was followed several months later by the country's controversial acquisition of the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka, just 22.2 kilometers (13.8 miles) by some estimates from the primary Indian Ocean sea lane that links the Malacca Straits to the Suez Canal.
    Speaking to CNN, Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Sydney, described the Hambantota deal -- which saw Sri Lanka grant China a 99-year lease on the port to service some of the billions in debt it owes to Beijing -- as part of a "determined strategy by China to extend its influence across the Indian Ocean at the expense of India."
    "That port then gives them not only a strategic access point into India's sphere of influence through which China can deploy its naval forces, but it also gives China an advantageous position to export its goods into India's economic sphere, so it's achieved a number of strategic aims in that regard," said Davis.

    Stoking fears

    Earlier this month, China took the unusual step of denying accusations that it was "land grabbing" in another critical Indian Ocean seaport -- this time in the Maldives.
    Like Sri Lanka, the Maldives has long been considered within India as a close regional ally. But in recen