China’s mighty strategic shadow hangs over an accord signed yesterday by India and France aimed at stepping up military cooperation in the Indian Ocean.
Under the deal signed by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and French President Emmanuel Macron, each country is to open its naval bases to warships from the other.
China’s territorial ambitions in the South China Sea already worry world powers and its move into the vast Indian Ocean — stretching from the Suez Canal to the Malacca Strait — has heightened that concern.
Modi and Macron are particularly anxious, as China extended its military presence by opening a naval base in the eastern African nation of Djibouti last year.
Beijing is also building up its trading network — the so-called Belt and Road Initiative — which involves many of the Asian and African nations that border the Indian Ocean.
China 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.
All of this has alarmed India, which sits at the heart of the Indian Ocean region.
New Delhi experts see Chinese companies investing in assets ranging from airports to the Bangladesh stock exchange as Beijing’s Trojan horses.
“They essentially work at the behest of the state and all of their investments are actually not commercial investments, but strategic investments and they are meant to serve a geopolitical purpose,” said Abhijit Singh, an analyst at the Observer Research Foundation, a New Delhi-based think tank.
Modi made clear when he rose to power in 2014 that boosting India’s influence in its immediate neighborhood was a strategic priority.
His government expressed fury 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 a 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 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.”
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