India-France

New equations

Print edition : April 27, 2018

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and French President Emmanuel Macron watch as Indian Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman (right) and France’s Minister of Armed Forces Florence Parly exchange the “Reciprocal Logistics Support Agreement” signed between India and France in New Delhi on March 10. Photo: Manish Swarup/AP

In Goa in May 2015, at the conclusion of the Indo-French naval exercise. In the background is the French fighter aircraft Rafale. Photo: By Special Arrangement

A European power joins the efforts of countries such as the United States and Japan to convert India into a regional military counterweight to China.

That India now is firmly in the military ambit of the Western powers has been further illustrated by the latest slew of defence agreements it has signed with France. During the visit of French President Emmanuel Macron to India in the middle of March, the most important agreement inked was the “Reciprocal Logistics Support Agreement”. The two countries have now officially agreed to open up their bases for use by their militaries. Indian warships will now be allowed to dock in French ports that dot the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

France still has many colonial enclaves scattered all over the world. In the Indian Ocean, the Reunion Islands near Mauritius is a French colony. The Indian Navy trains the Mauritian Navy and has a foothold in the country. According to Indian officials, the agreement with France will help the Indian Navy expand its footprint considerably in the Indian Ocean region.

France has military bases in the United Arab Emirates and Djibouti too. It will now have access to basing facilities for its ships in the ports that dot India’s long coastline and also in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which lie close to the crucial Malacca Straits. Much of China’s maritime trade passes through the Malacca Straits. China has also recently acquired a military base in Djibouti. The small country in the Horn of Africa has the dubious distinction of hosting two other foreign military bases, that of the United States and Japan.

India, too, is in the race to acquire permanent military bases in the Indian Ocean region and elsewhere. The Indian government was on the verge of clinching a military basing agreement with the Republic of Seychelles, but it came unstuck in March this year after the draft agreement of the deal was published in a local newspaper. The agreement was signed when Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid an official visit there in 2015. According to reports, India and France were to jointly develop a military base in Seychelles. The opposition in the Indian Ocean island republic has raised strong objections to some of the clauses in the agreement which allegedly infringe on the country’s sovereignty. The opposition has a majority in the country’s parliament, and its leader announced in late March that the basing deal was no longer valid.

The basing agreement signed between India and France is similar to the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) signed between India and the U.S. in 2016. The previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, despite the close ties that existed between Washington and New Delhi at the time, refused to sign the LEMOA, which for all practical purposes is a “basing” agreement that would allow the U.S. military to access Indian military bases.

So far, India has signed LEMOA-like agreements only with the U.S. and France, two leading members of the powerful North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) military alliance that have shared geostrategic interests. France and Germany, the two leading European powers, are engaged in building a strong military alliance of their own. At the recent Munich Security Conference, senior German and French officials conveyed their strong support to the Asian Quad, a military grouping comprising the U.S., Japan, India and Australia, which was reactivated last year.

Military front against China

The Quad was created at Washington’s instance to present a united military front against China in the Indian Ocean region. In an obvious attempt to massage the ego of India’s ruling establishment, the Donald Trump administration even started describing the Asia Pacific region as the Indo-Pacific. Admiral Harry Harris, the head of the U.S. Pacific Command who was recently on a visit to Delhi, said that it was “crystal clear” that Beijing wanted to dominate the South China Sea. “The reality is that China is a disruptive transitional force in the Indo-Pacific. They are the owners of the trust deficit,” he said.

China is of the view that the Quad was specifically created to disrupt its grandiose Belt Road project and stymie its economy. The Japanese government, another all-weather ally of the U.S., has also called for a “free and open Indo-Pacific strategy”. The Japanese say that their policy envisages the building of “high quality” infrastructure in the region. Tokyo has earmarked $200 billion for infrastructure projects in the region to take on China’s Belt Road initiative.

In a White Paper published in 2013, the French government also noted that the rise of China had an impact on the established “equilibrium in East Asia”. The paper emphasised the importance of securing European (read NATO) access to the Indian Ocean. The White Paper also pointed out that France “plays a particular role in the Indian Ocean reinforced by the development of privileged relations with India”. The UPA government had found it prudent to stay away from military alliances with Western powers. In 2006, during the first UPA government, India did participate in a quadrilateral military exercise involving the U.S., Japan and Australia. But better sense prevailed and India withdrew from the Quad. Australia, under a Labour government, had also opted out of the original Quad.

But with right-wing governments in power in India and Australia, the quadrilateral military alliance against China has been revived. The U.S. State Department has announced that in the next meeting of the Quad, the Maldives issue will be discussed. Both Washington and New Delhi claim that the Maldives is now in Beijing’s political and economic ambit and that the Chinese have plans to eventually build a military base there. No objections have been raised against Saudi Arabia leasing one of the islands in the Maldives or to the spread there of Wahhabi fundamentalism originating from the Arabian peninsula.

The alleged threat to the freedom of navigation posed by China and its growing economic and strategic footprint in the Indian Ocean region is used as a pretext to build up new military alliances. Most countries in the region have preferred to stay out of the military alliances being promoted by the West, India being a prominent exception. However, India has not sent its warships to the disputed areas of South China Sea so far. The French have said that they would be happy to join the Americans in military exercises in the South China Sea to protect “freedom of navigation”.

The French government’s Defence and National Security Strategic Review of 2017 identifies China as a military and strategic threat after it acquired a base in Djibouti and a “support facility” in the Pakistani port of Gwadar. “This trend reflects China’s strategic ambition to develop a long term naval influence in a maritime area extending from the South China Sea to the whole Indian Ocean,” the Review noted. Sections of the Indian establishment are also urging that the Indian military involve itself in the South China Sea. The Chinese government has strongly signalled that it considers the Quad as a military grouping specifically formed to counter Beijing in the Indo-Pacific region.

U.S.’ role in Africa

India’s signing of the LEMOA-like agreement with France signals an intensification of defence relationships in many areas, including deeper military to military exchanges, strategic and regional cooperation and expanded collaboration in and sharing of defence technology, and cooperation on trade issues. NATO these days is busy hyping up tensions with Russia while the U.S. is working overtime to stitch up a military alliance against China in the Asia Pacific region. France, along with the U.S., is playing the role of the gendarme on the African continent. France has military bases in its former colonies such as Cote d'Ivoire and Burkina Faso. The U.S. is busy pulling more and more sub-Saharan African countries into its military alliance.

The latest country to agree to U.S. military presence on its soil is Ghana. The opposition parties in Ghana had objected to the government’s move and boycotted the parliament in protest. The opposition said that the agreement gave unlimited access for U.S. forces to Ghana’s military facilities. Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, along with Jawaharlal Nehru, was vociferous in his opposition to foreign military bases. The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) remains opposed to the establishment of foreign bases. One of its longest standing demands was for the removal of the U.S. military base in Diego Garcia. The island legally belongs to Mauritius. India is now silent on this demand.

Since the end of the Cold War, the anti-imperialist world view of leaders who led the anti-colonial struggle has no longer been visible in many developing countries. India has been no exception. Since the beginning of the 1990s it has been slowly but inexorably moving into the Western camp. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party has only accelerated the move.

A rising China has rattled not only the West but also Asian countries such as India and Japan. The Indian leadership has chosen to view China as a strategic rival though both countries are members of important international groupings such as BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). The Indian government has been surprised by the rapid diplomatic and economic strides the Chinese have made in the South Asian region, especially in areas which it considers its backyard. But it is also a fact that China continues to be India’s biggest trading partner. The Chinese Communist Party has always stressed that its eventual rise to superpower status will be through “peaceful means” unlike the country that today enjoys the sole superpower status.

Macron told the media in New Delhi that his country’s increasing involvement in the region was motivated by the growing tensions and rivalries between the major powers. “A strong part of our security and the world’s stability is at stake in the Indian Ocean. The Indian Ocean, like the Pacific Ocean, cannot become a place of hegemony,” he pronounced. Both the French and Indian leaderships have accused China of having hegemonic designs. A “Strategic Vision” document that was released during Macron’s visit pledged “to increase the exchange of information on the maritime situation in the Indian Ocean” and to jointly develop “a maritime surveillance satellite focused on the Indian Ocean”. The main task of this satellite is no doubt to track the movement of Chinese ships in the Indian Ocean. The French have also now joined the efforts of countries like the U.S. and Japan in the ongoing efforts of converting India into a regional military counterweight to China.

In this endeavour there is also plenty of money to be made. The U.S. and France have sold billions of dollars of weaponry to India in the last couple of years. India had signed a controversial deal with France for the purchase of 36 Rafale fighter planes for $8 billion. During Macron’s recent visit, France and India signed deals worth more than $16 billion. India will be buying additional nuclear-capable Scorpene submarines and Rafale jets from France.

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