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The French Connection in the Indian Ocean; By Commodore R. Seshadri Vasan IN (Retd.)

Image courtesy: France’s Overseas Territories/Hoshie, via Wikimedia Commons

Article No. 016/2018

There are high expectations about the visit of the French President Emmanuel Macron commencing this week end. The most notable high of the visit appears to be about the prospect of a maritime agreement on the lines of the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) signed with USA, Singapore and Oman. This would allow the two countries to use the base facilities in the Indian Ocean for supporting naval operations. Not that this was unexpected as successive visits by high profile officials (The Defence Minster and the Foreign Minister) from France last year have alluded to the need for closer cooperation in the maritime domain.

French Interests The French from the colonial days are the owners of many islands in the Indian Ocean close to the African coast though the ownership is disputed in some of the Islands. The collective Exclusive Economic Zone of French in the Indian Ocean covers a huge area of 11 million Square kilometers. This is more than five times the combined EEZ owned by India at 2.01 million square kilometers.  It is no surprise that France has military bases to protect its Islands and seaborne interests in the Indo Pacific area. The presence of the French Navy notably in the Reunion Island and Mayotte has provided the French Navy the means to   exercise control in the areas of interest from Africa to Australia.

IOR and Chinese interests The growing importance of the Indian Ocean in terms of economic engagements, Chinese expansionism and the emerging nature of power play has caught the attention of all major powers around the world and France is no exception. France by virtue of its physical possession of strategic Islands in the IOR and due to its economic clout as a dominant European Power is in a position to influence the course of events in the IOR both individually and by collective application of necessary economic and military leverages.  The expected signing of the LEMOA therefore opens up new avenues for both India and France as they raise the level of economic and military engagement to a different level. By being able to support each other in their respective bases, there would be considerable optimization of resources and support facilities in the coming years.

There is no need to shy away from the fact that China is becoming increasingly relevant Extra Regional Player in the Indian Ocean with great power ambitions. The recent clearance for Xi to continue as a President indefinitelygives him and the Party a free hand to work on realizing Xi’s dream which has deep understanding of the use of the seas.

Significance of the Visit and the Agreement The ensuing signing of the agreement between the two countries on the lines of LEMOA should not be seen in the backdrop of mere military exchanges, but as a worthy option to protect the strategic interests of India which has witnessed   phenomenal rise of China in its neighbourhood. Chinese activities such as – the commissioning of the naval base at Djibouti (where even the French have a military presence) by the PLA Navy, the acquisition of the Hambantota on a ninety nine years long lease though touted as for commercial purposes, the ability to operate from Gwadar at the mouth of Straits of Hormuz port, infrastructure development in Bangladesh, Myanmar and Maldives- these developments have altered the traditional status quo in the IOR and challenged the traditional maritime supremacy enjoyed by India as a Regional Super Power. In response to the Chinese overtures, the Indian initiatives, along with the Quadrilateral move have to be seen as efforts to remain proactive to protect the legitimate interests of India in its backyard. The possession of islands in the Pacific would also help India to serve its Act East Policy, even as it could offer the facilities at Andaman and Nicobar, on a reciprocal basis, to the French Navy’s overseas missions.

A Reliable Military Supplier France has been a supplier of military hardware to all the three armed services in India. Their products have a reputation for being highly reliable state of the art hardware that has acquitted itself creditably in the Indian scenario including during hostilities.

The Indian Navy’s first exposure to a French technology was when, in the 1960s, the Indian Navy inducted the Alize carrier borne aircraft which flew alongside the Seahawks and was instrumental in the liberation of Bangladesh. Those who operated the Alize including this author will vouch for the reliability and for the range of weapons and sensor suite that was contemporary and effective. Not many are aware that the Alizes (LuisBreguet 1050) flew in pitch dark night from the only carrier in Asia at that time and was a formidable component of integral air of the Indian Navy. They were able to fly out from the carrier during the war to liberate Bangladeshboth by day and night, even when the Sea Hawks were not capable due to the deck operating limitations imposed by wind and weather. The advanced Electronic Support Measure (ESM) equipment at that time allowed for deployment from the border to mapping ground radar positions of our adversaries on many occasions. Such mapping helped the Indian Air Force to plan their ground attacks more meticulously.The commissioning of the Scorpene submarines from the French, though delayed, has to a large extent helped both in reducing the gap in the underwater arsenal and also in the development of the follow on submarines by the Indian Navy.  The experience of the Indian Air Force likewise who acquired the Anglo French Jaguars, the Mirages and now the Rafael’s which are in the pipeline are heartwarming. The Mirages played a significant role during Kargil war when they were used during the ground offensive by the Indian Army. Both the Indian Navy and the Indian Air Force routinely exercise with their counterparts thus adding to enhancing interoperability. This experience from Varuna, a naval bilateral exercise, will come handy when the two navies are operating together from bases earmarked for mutual use  and will allow  for establishing of the Standard Operating Procedures when operating from either base.

Make in India? With a strong military industrial base and proven credentials, the French will continue to compete with other nations to carve out a good share of the defence imports by India which has become the leading importer of defence products. France can also be expected not to just stop being a military supplier but to offer help in the Make in India initiative which has gathered steam. This initiative requires closer coordination, technical acumen, suitable funding instruments and close monitoring to imbibe the nuances of cutting edge technology to realize the dream. Some of the past policy aberrations (as in the Defence Procurement Policy and Offsets) and decision making failures have cost this indigenization programme dearly. While USA has made many offers for promoting the Make in India, the offers such as the shifting of the obsolete F-16 assembly has not cut ice with the military and the political establishment. The general assessment on this offer is that it does not contribute to the make in India ambition in real terms, but will actually be a retrograde step that has no tangible benefits.  It is here that the French could also step in and offer their expertise to the indigenization thrust by offering competitive alternate options to the proposals by USA and others.

Matters Maritime On the maritime front in the Indian Ocean, the efforts to integrate Mauritius, Seychelles and Oman to promote India’s Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) have to a great degree augmented India’s effort to engage the maritime neighbourhood to serve the common interests of the countries in the region. It has also enabled the nation to be better prepared to face both conventional and asymmetric threats post Mumbai terror attack.  The opportunity now to use the military bases of France in the IOR would thus serve the aspirations of India to be the Net Security Provider in the region not alone but by association with other nations who have similar stakes in protecting the Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) which are the life lines of countries across continents carrying energy goods and promoting trade and commerce.

In conclusion, it can be inferred that this visit is indeed path breaking one and does open up new opportunities for both countries to pool their capability and capacity in the Indian Ocean and work together to serve common interests in the global commons. There is doubtlessly a need to carry this momentum further and derive maximum benefits in the related sectors for India’s growth and prosperity.

[Commodore RS Vasan IN (Retd) is Regional Director, Chennai Chapter of National Maritime Foundation (NMF), New Delhi, and Director, C3S. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of any institution he is affiliated with. He can be reached at rsvasan2010@gmail.com]

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