Backed by France, India likely to bolster presence in the Indian Ocean

Access to French military bases may well be a shot in the arm for India, which of late has been facing Chinese naval and economic heft in the Indian Ocean.

Photo courtesy: Twitter/@PMOIndia
Photo courtesy: Twitter/@PMOIndia

Dhairya Maheshwari

Increased naval cooperation in the Indian Ocean will feature prominently in discussions when French President Emmanuel Macron meets Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday, during French leader’s three-day bilateral visits which begins on Friday.

“There will be a special emphasis on the India Ocean. France has significant military and colony interests in the region, including France’s overseas naval bases in the western Indian Ocean,” sources in the French government said.

“A logistics and defence exchange agreement on the lines of Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) could be signed during Macron’s visit,” sources added.

Controlling more than 10 million square kilometres of marine and land territory, France is the biggest overseas player in the Indian Ocean. The West European power also has military bases in the United Arab Emirates, Djibouti and Reunion in the Indian Ocean, the latter two being former French colonies.

Access to French military bases may well be a shot in the arm for India, which of late has been facing Chinese naval and economic heft in the Indian Ocean. As part of its ‘String of Pearls’ strategy, Beijing has constructed commercial and naval posts in Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Gwadar in Pakistan and Djibouti at the Horn of Africa.

The Asian powerhouse has also commissioned projects in Bangladesh, Myanmar and the Maldives. The Chinese leadership claims that these projects are meant to prop up the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a network of Beijing-funded infrastructure and connectivity projects across Asia, Africa and Europe.

The increased Chinese activity is causing anxiety in India, which views itself being encircled by Chinese outposts in the Indian Ocean.

France and India have mostly been on the same page when it comes to questioning China’s intentions in the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. In recent months, France has held naval drills with Japan and Vietnam, both of which have been embroiled in maritime disputes with China.

“We have the same vision and same priorities. This would be reflected in some of the major joint announcements that the leaders will make during the bilateral visit,” French sources noted.

France, however, is not believed to be keen on the idea of joining the Quad, the four-nation grouping comprising India, Australia, Japan and the US, and seen as a counterbalancing strategy to China’s growing assertiveness.

“At this stage, the focus is on bilateral cooperation,” French government sources said.

It is learnt that a bilateral agreement on solar technology will also be sealed during Macron’s visit, who, along with PM Modi, will be attending the International Solar Alliance’s inaugural conference in New Delhi on March 10.

“Enhanced cooperation in climate change, nuclear technology and education are other areas of focus likely to be taken up during the French leader’s visit,” sources said.

Macron, who will be accompanied by his wife Brigitte Macron and a delegation of French business leaders, will touch down at Delhi on Friday evening.

He will visit Rajghat, before holding talks with External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Prime Minister Narendra Modi the next day. In the evening, Macron will attend a banquet hosted by the Indian President at the Rashtrapati Bhawan.

The French leader will interact with students from top schools and universities in a townhall on Sunday, before heading for a personal visit to Taj Mahal in Agra.

On Monday, Macron will head to Varanasi where he will be received by PM Modi. He will then head to Mirzapur to inaugurate a 75-MW solar power plant, the largest in Uttar Pradesh.

On the same day, Macron will travel back to New Delhi and return to France.

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