India’s Varuna naval exercise with France in the Bay of Bengal and the preceding La Pérouse exercise involving France, India, the US, Japan and Australia show the democracies of the Indo-Pacific region are slowly closing ranks against the rising new hegemon.
This exercise, in which the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle and its complement of Rafale naval jets is taking part, comes close on the heels of a France + Quad exercise in the Bay of Bengal earlier this month. The message to China is clear: Covid or no Covid, the coalition of democracies is not going to let its guard down.
“The three-day Varuna will see high tempo naval operations at sea, including advanced air defence and anti-submarine exercises, intense fixed and rotary wing flying operations, tactical manoeuvres, surface and anti-air weapon firing, among other maritime security operations,” Navy spokesperson Commander Vivek Madhwal said.
India has sent a powerful flotilla comprising stealth frigates INS Tarkash and INS Talwar, guided missile destroyer INS Kolkata, a Kalvari class diesel electric submarine, fleet support ship INS Deepak, P-8I long range maritime patrol aircraft as well as Sea King and Chetak helicopters for the exercise.
The French navy has fielded multi-mission frigate FNS Provence, air defence destroyer Chevalier Paul, command and supply ship Var as well as E2C HawkEye aircraft and helicopters in addition to the aircraft carrier.
“The joint exercise comprises various drills across the spectrum of maritime operations, with the goal of fostering inter-operability and mutual learning between the two navies and reinforcing their capability for join action in a strategic area,” the French embassy said in a statement.
This exercise is seen as promoting maritime security in the Indo-Pacific. It comes close on the heels of the Indian Navy participating for the first time in France’s La Pérouse naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal from April 5-7 in which India’s Quad partners the US, Japan and Australia also participated.
Although the Indian media had dubbed this a France + Quad exercise, it must be borne in mind that the four Quad members participated in their individual capacities and not as members of the four-nation bloc. In fact, the US, Japan and Australia have been regular participants in La Pérouse for several years.
Nevertheless, the discussions in diplomatic circles of a Quad-plus arrangement are beginning to gather some force even though policy makers deny any substance to such speculation. But the issue is refusing to die down as the UK has recently released its Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, clearly outlining a framework for an “Indo-Pacific tilt”.
Feeding the grapevine in the international geo-strategic community was the statement by Josep Borrell, the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, that Europe should “set out a common vision for its future Indo-Pacific engagement”. Since timing is everything in global diplomacy, Borrell’s statement coming on the back of the UK review would seem to indicate something more than mere happenstance.
However, more than the UK and the EU, it is France deciding to pull its weight in the Indo-Pacific that could add considerable heft to the efforts of the Quad nations to ensure freedom of navigation and peace and prosperity across this vast region stretching from the East Coast of Africa to the Polynesian islands in the Eastern Pacific Ocean.
That’s because unlike the UK or the EU as a bloc, France is a resident power, having a physical presence and a massive exclusive economic zone in the region. The southern Indian Ocean has French overseas French territories like Mayotte and La Réunion, the Scattered Islands, and the French Southern and Antarctic Territories.
In the Pacific Ocean, French overseas territories include New Caledonia, Wallis and Futuna, French Polynesia, and Clipperton Island, making it the only European nation to hold territory in both Oceans.
This gives France a stake in the future of the Indo-Pacific region that is at par with that of the Quad members and cements its position as a “resident power”.
The coming together of India and France, two middle powers that have traditionally stayed away from forming strategic blocs in the region and the “informal” seeding of a France+Quad grouping has obviously rattled Beijing.
This week, it tried to incite Bangladesh to oppose the Quad. China and Bangladesh should make joint efforts against powers from outside the region establishing military alliances in South Asia in pursuit of hegemonism,” China’s Defence Minister Wei Fenghe said.
Many experts in New Delhi see India’s naval exercises with France and the France+Quad exercises as two sides of the same coin – the coalition of democracies is slowly coming together and closing ranks against the not-so-peaceful rise of the new Asian hegemon.