France has agreed to join India's Indo-Pacific Ocean Initiative. On paper, the project embraces cooperation on climate change and academic exchanges, but its main purpose seems to be strategic. And it fits into US plans for a growing coalition of democracies, aimed at stemming China's increased assertiveness in the region.
A week after Russia's Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov warned India that the creation of an "Asian Nato" would be counterproductive, France's Minister of Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves le Drian met his Indian and Australian counterparts Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and Marise Paine in Delhi to explore a "trilateral mechanism" to address "emerging challenges in the maritime and space domains".
Although both France and India remain extremely cautious on the question of defence cooperation, Paris' willingness to join hands with Delhi and Canberra in the Indo-Pacific region was strengthened by its decision to participate in the Indo-Pacific Ocean Initiative (IPOI), a platform set into motion by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2019.
"The IPOI is looking at enhancing cooperation with like-minded countries in the indo-Pacific region," Dr Premesha Saha, an Associate Fellow with the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) in New Delhi, told RFI.
PODCAST: Premesha Saha, Associate Fellow with the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, talks about the Indo-Pacific Ocean Iniative and France's role in it.
The IPOI consists of several innocent sounding "pillars," including "climate change" and "maritime ecology" but also "maritime security" and this is probably its main focus.
The speakers list of the Raisina Dialogue, a geostrategic forum focusing on the Indo-Pacific region, and attended by Le Drian on 15 April, is revealing.
It shows a heavy line-up of military, including Chiefs of Staff from Japan, Australia, India and the chairman of the EU Military Committee, as well as ex-CIA chief General David Petraeus, and Nato head, Jens Stoltenberg. Apart from that, the list features an impressive series of Prime and Foreign Ministers (from France, Japan, Australia, among others), MEP's, heads of think tanks - including an occasional Russian - and selected journalists.
Notably absent from the list: any speakers from China.
"China has been aggressively pursuing its sovereignty claims," says an ORF study of India's Indo-Pacific policy published last December. "It is working to establish itself as a major regional player," and Delhi is welcoming countries "that have expressed interest in working with India under the IPOI" to find ways to respond to "China's unilateral and belligerent behaviour in the Indo-Pacific". France is clearly on board.
Joint navy exercises
At the beginning of April, two French Navy vessels, the Tonnerre and the Surcouf, made a port call at the Indian port of Kochi. The two warships then sailed to the Bay of Bengal to take part in the France-led joint naval exercise, La Perouse, involving ships from India, Australia, Japan and the United States in early April.
France's growing interest in the region was underlined by President Emmanuel Macron when he appointed veteran diplomat Christophe Penot as "Envoy for the Indo-Pacific" on 16 September 2016.
Penot, a former ambassador to Australia, is based in Paris, but travels across the Indo-Pacific to coordinate with France's partners and to forge new initiatives such as the trilateral dialogue launched with India and Australia in September 2020.
According to the website of France's Foreign Ministry, the trilateral dialogue focuses on "geostrategic challenges" and "strategies for a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific".
This is jargon that fits seamlessly into US language used in papers such as the 2021 joint policy statement by the US Navy, Marines and Coast Guard, which outlines the US "promise" of a "free and open, rules-based order" for large stretches of the South China Sea.
Freedom of Navigation
The anti-China coalition seems to be emerging from a series of seemingly non-related meetings, naval exercises and multilateral cooperation like the Trilateral Dialogue and the Quadrilateral Dialogue ("the Quad") resulting in joint US, Indian, Australian and Japanese naval exercises.
The Quad was initiated in 2007, then lay dormant for a decade, but was injected with new life after Xi Jinping came to power in 2012 and seemed to move to a more aggressive stance in the region. Quad exercises fitted into the US Freedom of Navigation Program (FON), launched in 1979 "to safeguard lawful commerce and the global mobility of US forces," and to fight "excessive maritime claims".
The 2020 FON report to Congress by the US Department of Defense lists 19 countries making territorial claims outside the 200 nautical miles (370 km) of the "exclusive economic zone" (EEZ) as established by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
According to the report, China is guilty of most violations. It counts seven instances, including 'restricting foreign aircraft,' over corresponding Air Defence Identification Zones; 'criminalisation of surveying and mapping activities' by foreign ships without prior approval, forbidding 'innocent passage of foreign military ships' without prior permission from Beijing.
And in the last two years, the US, worried by China's repression of democracy in Hong Kong and increasingly frequent violations of Taiwanese airspace, seems to want to expand its regional influence by more intensive participation with "democratic" allies.
India, which has already fought a brief border war with China in 1967, is a prime mover in this plan as it is currently engaged in a stand-off with Beijing over stretches of their common - and disputed - border. "it was only logical for India to show that it can also spread its influence in China's backyard," says ORF's Premesha Saha, "which is the western Pacific in the South China Sea."
India is also particularly worried about China's Belt and Road initiative, of which a crucial element, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is seen by Delhi as an "attack on India's sovereignty." With France - and the EU - aboard, a broad circle of allies now seems to be forming.
China, meanwhile, expresses discontent with the growing alliance which it sees as a proof of "US imperialism". In an angry opinion piece published by the hard-line Global Times on 14 April, commentator Xie Chao scoffs that "Quad has reached its ceiling and internal contradictions are expected to emerge," adding that " a larger Asia-Pacific alliance like Nato" is doomed to fail because the four members "lack consensus" on a common threat.
French participation in Quad naval exercises, the paper says in another article, are "a publicity stunt" which "won't strengthen a loose group," mocking that it "it is impossible for France to maintain a long-term military presence in this region" and that Paris is merely paying lip-service to Washington.