France to ramp up joint patrols and operations with India
France will ramp up joint patrols and operations with India’s armed forces in the Indian Ocean to protect the interests of both countries, counter illegal activities and ensure an international rules-based order, a top French commander said on Monday.
Vice Admiral Didier Maleterre, joint commander of French forces in the Indian Ocean and the United Arab Emirates, indicated that China’s presence at a string of civilian and military facilities, including Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Gwadar in Pakistan and Djibouti, has security implications for the Indian Ocean region.
Maleterre, here for discussions with his Indian counterparts, told journalists that besides securing sea lanes of communication used by merchant vessels, it is essential to protect undersea cables, including those in waters off Sri Lanka, which are used for 85% of the worldwide web.
In 2020, a P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft of the Indian Navy will go to Reunion Island, a French possession in the Indian Ocean, to conduct joint patrols with French frigates in strategic areas such as the Mozambique Channel, he said.
The two sides are also looking at joint patrols and operations in the northwestern Indian Ocean, including the Gulf of Aden, and greater coordination in the Strait of Hormuz, which saw several attacks on tankers this year.
There are also plans for a joint exercise with amphibious assets off the Goa coast next year and a humanitarian assistance and disaster relief exercise in south India in 2021.
“Joint patrols with India is a new concept. We don’t have so many assets (in the region) and the agenda for next year will be very important,” Maleterre said. France will work with strategic partners such as India, the US and Australia to achieve its “very clear strategic and political objective” that the rules-based order remains intact and is respected, he added.
Maleterre explained France’s focus on the Indo-Pacific by citing two factors – the presence of 1.5 million French citizens on island territories, and the country’s exclusive economic zone of more than 11 million sq km, the second largest in the world, with 93% or 9 million sq km in the Indo-Pacific.
China, he said, wasn’t “hiding anything about its ambitions” behind the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which is a strategy to protect sea lanes of communications and to extend its influence in eastern African countries.
“They have a plan to have bases in Hambantota, Sri Lanka, in Pakistan, in Djibouti and in other sites. For the French, we want the international law and order to be respected,” Maleterre said.
Noting that China first deployed its warships in the Indian Ocean in 2008 for the ostensible reason of tackling piracy, he said Beijing had gone on to deploy “more and more assets”, including destroyers and conventional and nuclear submarines. “These assets are not the best tool to fight against piracy, there is another ambition behind it, and we know that,” he said.
“Part of the cooperation with India is to be able to protect our interests together with the US and Japan and the British,” he said, adding France believes the ports of Hambantota and Gwadar have a “dual use”.
France intends to have a secure link for exchange of classified information between its military headquarters in Abu Dhabi and the Indian Navy in Delhi. “This illustrates the level of confidence in our relationship. It is very rare to have such links with non-NATO countries to exchange classified information,” he said.
“We want to conduct joint operations with India for maritime surveillance and perhaps more sensitive (matters). For that we need classified communications. I know the Indian Navy is working on that. So we have the will, the objective is to be inter-operable with India and we are on the good track,” Maleterre said.
Referring to the importance of undersea communications cables, he warned of covert operations to cut these cables and said this could be a “big nightmare”. Repairs could take up to two or three weeks and during this period, businesses and communications would be affected.
“We talk about commercial flows and tankers, that’s strategic. But all the internet under the sea is a very strategic matter and we need to protect our cables as well,” he said.