India, France sign accord to step up military cooperation in Indian Ocean

NEW DELHI, March 10: India and France on Saturday signed an accord to step up military cooperation in the Indian Ocean.

Under the agreement signed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and French President Emmanuel Macron, each country will open its naval bases to warships from the other.

Macron arrived in New Delhi on Friday for a four-day visit to India.

The agreement between the two countries is being seen as an attempt to overshadow the rising might of China. China’s territorial ambitions in the South China Sea have already worry world powers. And movement in the Indian Ocean — stretching from the Suez Canal to the Malacca Strait — has raised that concern.

Last year China extended its military might by opening a naval base in the eastern African nation of Djibouti and that has worried both India and France.

Beijing is also building up its trading network — the so-called One Belt One Road initiative — which involves many of the Asian and African nations that line the Indian Ocean.

It has built a port in Pakistan’s Gwadar, taken a 99-year-lease on Sri Lanka’s Hambantota and bought a number of tiny islands in the Maldives.

The rising step of China has worried India, which sits in the middle of the Indian Ocean region.

Experts see Chinese companies investing in assets ranging from airports to the Bangladesh stock exchange as Beijing’s Trojan horses.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had made it clear in 2014, when he came to power that boosting India’s influence in its immediate neighbourhood was a strategic priority. That is why he chose to develop close relations with countries, including Nepal and Bhutan, and even made it a point to visit the two countries immediately after taking the chair of PM.

The Indian government expressed anger when Sri Lanka let a Chinese submarine make a stopover in 2014. Colombo refused a similar request the following year.

India has stepped up its patrols in the Sunda Strait in the eastern Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf, while boosting its maritime surveillance capability around the Andaman and Nicobar islands off Myanmar, where Chinese warships and submarines have increasingly been on patrol.

Reunion island is in turn a key French territory in the Indian Ocean and Paris also has extensive Pacific interests.

“We have a strong maritime power, a big navy with our nuclear submarines,” Macron said in a TV interview on Friday.

France is “very active in this region to preserve collective security and for me India is one of the critical partners to preserve stability in the whole region.”

China strongly denies any territorial motive against India despite its huge investments and military moves. “The two countries are partners in development not rivals,” said the foreign ministry in Beijing.