Trailing China, A New Defence Deal With France Gives India A Foothold In Indian Ocean

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India is all set to firm up a defense logistics agreement with France, similar to the LEMOA it has with the United States. The move will allow India access to French military bases in the Indian Ocean and the Horn of Africa, rounding off another critical part of its enhanced military presence in these waters to counter China.

The agreement, which is expected to be signed during French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to India in early March, was firmed up around the same time that New Delhi worked out the fine-print with Seychelles to build and operate a military base there.

The Approach

India set up bases on Assumption Island in Seychelles and on Agalega Islands in Mauritius, both on the outer stretches of Africa, with an intent to monitor big shipping traffic moving across the Indian Ocean, towards the Horn of Africa and to the Persian Gulf. In both these places, India will build infrastructure and operate the bases with adequate safeguards to the sovereignty of the country concerned.

Another proposal under consideration is a possible base in Oman. This would expand Indian presence to the mouth of the Persian Gulf. However, the entire project would entail a massive expenditure that the New Delhi is now going through with a toothcomb.

The LEMOA with the US provides India access to Diego Garcia, the biggest American base in the Indian Ocean. In the same vein, the logistics agreement with France will allow India access to the strategically important French base in the Reunion Islands near Madagascar. 

Another agreement India signed as part of this maritime strategy was with Singapore two months ago at the Defense Ministers’ Dialogue. Through this understanding, India can dock its naval platforms in Singapore for longer periods, use its facilities, and even conduct maritime surveillance missions in the South China Sea. As a result, Indian ships and naval assets can move across freely in the Indo-Pacific.

India will likely service and station troops in bases that it will build and operate. The idea would be to increase the number of foreign bases in this category, however it will also require New Delhi to find the finances and political muscle to see it through.

China’s Lead

Maldives is a good example of how China has asserted a lead in the area, with China building an entire port city equipped with a possible base. This, along with its port in Gwadar, Pakistan, provides a perfect entry into the Arabian Sea and down to the Indian Ocean. Similarly, the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka is, for all practical purposes, now leased to China. This has forced India to go deeper south in the Indian Ocean towards Mauritius.

The large under-sea data cables in the area, which are constantly being probed by Chinese submarines are also of immense value and importance. China is now able to mount more under-sea missions in the Indian Ocean due to better port access, which is another cause of concern for India.

While Seychelles and Mauritius are good starts, what India must ensure is more such agreements and better delivery on the ground. The much delayed Chabahar project in Iran, which was meant to be India’s answer to Gwadar, should serve as a constant reminder on how poor execution can neutralize any strategic advantage or play.

(This article was originally published on February 5, 2018 in the Print. It has been re-published here with permission from the author. Read the original piece here.)