Wednesday, December 11, 2019
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India, France step up cooperation in Indian Ocean in bid to checkmate China

NEW DELHI: The scheduled deployment of an Indian naval warship to the Reunion Island in early 2020 signals India’s growing power play in the ‘Great Game’ in the Indo-Pacific.

The announcement made by French president Emmanuel Macron shows not just India’s increased involvement but an increased bid by New Delhi and Paris to checkmate Beijing’s growing expansionism in an area that many pundits believe is going to be the new geopolitical centre of gravity in the world.

France’s ambassador to India Emmanuel Lenain, showed not only the urgency with which Paris is viewing the ongoing scenario in the Indo-Pacific but more subtly, the active role that Paris want New Delhi to play.

Speaking in the Capital, the ambassador said, ‘I want to tell my Indian friends that for France the Indo-Pacific is a reality. What concerns us is maritime security, illegal threats of naval piracy, maritime tourism trafficking, tourism and the consequences of climate changes.’

The subtext was clear – France wanted and wants India to step up surveillance and other activities in the Indian Ocean.

This address was to the Pune Dialogue on National Security held on 08-09 November.

France’s direct outreach to India stems from the failure of multilateral organisations and the big superpower – the U.S.’s seeming unwillingness to check China. The failure of the QUAD and the U.S.’s vague policy announcement of a ‘free and open’ Indo-Pacific in 2017 has had little to show in terms of concerted action. This is why Paris is not only promoting its interests more publicly but is also pushing India into becoming a partner in ‘safeguarding’ the region.

It is not surprising that Paris would react this way. France has a huge investment in the Indian Ocean. Owning a territory of over 400,000 square kilometres, the Indo-Pacific is home to 1.6 million French citizens with over 200,000 French expatriates. Economically, nine of the 11 million square kilometres of France’s Exclusive Economic Zones are in this region ensuring that Paris has but little choice to have a sizable military presence there. Currently, 7,000 French military personnel are in the region and are likely to remain as a permanent presence there.

This vision of French control over the Indo-Pacific is being shattered by Bejing’s growing footprint in the region. From increased aggression with its neighbours in the South China Sea to the development of Chinese ports in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, Gwadar in Pakistan, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, and in the Maldives and Tanzania, China’s sea supply routes in the region are fast bearing fruit.

So the question is will New Delhi bite? Yes, to an extent. Concerns over the BRI and the increased Chinese naval presence in the region suggests that India is willing to play a role, albeit subtly, so as not to upset Chinese sentiments too much. Already, India has stepped up naval cooperation with countries like Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam and Japan and its active participation in organisations like IORA – Indian Ocean Rim Association suggests that it is ready to be a balancing partner to western nations in this area.

The fact that the Minister of State of External Affairs V Muraleedharan recently attended a ministerial event with his counterparts from France and the Vanilla Islands (Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius and Seychelles in the western Indian Ocean) to discuss economic and developmental partnership would be an event that China would definitely take note of. India has been eyeing gas deposits in the Mozambique Channel near the Vanilla Islands for some time now and a public presence there suggests that New Delhi is ready to fight for a piece of the energy pie. Clearly, the jostling for space in the Indo-Pacific has only just begun.

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