When the global community started using the terminology ‘Indo-Pacific’ instead of ‘Asia –Pacific’, it was not merely a change in terminology, but it indicated a global maritime security concern due to Chinese island grabbing adventures and luring smaller countries to establish military bases in Indian Ocean Region (IOR), besides South and East China Sea. Both the oceans exist as a single water body with few choke points separating them, but the term Indo-Pacific indicates the maritime shift with some signalling to resent Chinese over aggressive moves with additional bases in IOR (Increasing Pearls of the String) and incremental encroachment in South and East China Sea.
The forthcoming visit of French President Emmanuel Macron to India towards this weekend is relevant in this context of Maritime security of IOR, besides other important expectations like nuclear cooperation and possible agreement between NPCIL (Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited) and EDF (of France) on six nuclear reactors, helping out India in indigenisation and maintenance of reactors. France is a major exporter of planes including fighter planes, helicopters, packaged medicaments and cars for which India is an emerging market, and a major importer of oil for which security of Gulf is important. Hence, they have managed to have military bases in Abu Dhabi and Djibouti. In both cases, there is a natural convergence of interests between India and France.
Looking from French point of view, its volume of trade transhipments in Indo- Pacific region is very limited when compared to QUAD countries (U.S.A, Japan, India and Australia) hence its concerns are also expected to be limited. French stakes in IOR however, are relatively much higher; hence it holds military bases in Djibouti, Abu Dhabi and Reunion Islands to look after its real state, which includes ten islands as part of French overseas territory. This happens to be the maximum held by any country as overseas territory, including approximately 11 million sq. km of exclusive economic zone especially in the Mozambique Channel. France also has some assets in South Pacific, which it will like to secure in conjunction with Australia. The French interests, therefore, will be limited to IOR and later possibly South Pacific. It, therefore, has a limited congruence of security interests with QUAD, and may not be taking an anti-Chinese position, more so after the visit of President Macron there.
India should be looking at a strategic partnership with France, with formal agreements to allow India logistics access to French military bases and vice versa, in IOR for mutual security interest on lines of LEMOA (Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement). We should also be looking at architecture for intelligence sharing, anti-piracy and disaster relief measures. I do not visualise that France will walk into any anti-Chinese arrangement including anything related to QUAD; hence the talks would be within the bounds of bilateralism and IOR for the time being. Post-release White Paper of Australia on its National Security last year and US National Security Strategy recently, the maritime concerns of Australia also are inter-woven with India and IOR, and have become a global concern. An offer of negotiating for joint exercises with France and Australia in Indian Ocean to improve interoperability may not be a bad idea. The fact that France has a base in Abu Dhabi, and its security interests are converging with Indians, some mutually beneficial arrangements could be discussed for future trilateral negotiations.
India has to deal with a new strategic dynamics in IOR with increasing Chinese footprints. China in few decades grew from Brown to Blue-water Naval status, knocking off first and second island chains, went on to island grabbing spree and now it continues to acquire as many bases in IOR as it can, to protect its maritime road and make its BRI succeed. The additional bases of China in IOR have limited capability in view of inadequate air power, and its aircraft carriers will still take quite sometimes to be able to be fully effective in IOR in comparison with Indian and other Navies operating there. Although Indian Navy is well poised to protect Indian interests in IOR, yet it needs to be seriously concerned with growing hostile capability and needs to take concrete steps in capacity building.
Towards this end, a strategic partnership with France to be able to use their military bases will serve our mutual interest. In fact, India itself should start looking for military bases at strategically crucial locations and offer similar facilities to French Navy. The French Defence equipment can also be looked at for capacity building. India should look beyond getting some islands in Seychelles and Mauritius to cut down reaction time with reciprocal facilities to France from our existing naval bases. With this as a backdrop, it will be interesting to see how far France is ready to sail with India in IOR.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)