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Indo-Pacific

France to lead Quad naval drill in Indo-Pacific challenge to China

Five-nation exercise in Bay of Bengal seeks to promote maritime cooperation

French amphibious assault helicopter carrier, Tonnerre, approaches to dock at Cochin Port, in Kochi on March 30.   © AFP/Jiji

NEW DELHI/PARIS -- In a first, India will join its Quad partners -- Australia, Japan and the U.S. -- in a French-led naval drill in the Bay of Bengal next week, as the nations seek to improve Indo-Pacific maritime security.

The first edition of the La Perouse exercise, named after an 18th century French naval officer and explorer, was held in 2019 without India.

Three days of drills will take place from Monday. They "will provide an opportunity for these five like-minded, high-end naval forces to develop closer links, sharpen their skills, and promote maritime cooperation throughout a free and open Indo-Pacific," the French embassy in New Delhi said in a statement on Wednesday.

The drill follows the maiden summit of Quad leaders, held virtually on Mar. 12, and viewed as a defining moment in Asia's geopolitics. That was followed by U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's visit to New Delhi as part of his first overseas trip since taking office -- a tour that also included Japan and South Korea.

The four Quad nations joined hands for a maritime exercise after the November 2020 Malabar drill in the Indo-Pacific. With France, the four nations are expected to take this cooperation to a new high.

"The significance of this coming together of the Quad nations for a multilateral military exercise is not lost on those keenly watching this space," N.C. Bipindra, a defense and strategic affairs analyst and editor at news portal Defence.Capital, told Nikkei Asia. "Obviously, China will be one of those observers of what is going on closer home, as it has in recent years raised the stakes in the Indo-Pacific region through its aggressive military activity."

The Quad -- a loose security grouping -- and France frequently talk at various forums about the need for freedom of navigation in Indo-Pacific, a euphemism for China's "illegal" maritime territorial claims in the South China Sea.

"It is but natural to see the La Perouse maritime military exercise as a move by these five nations to practice naval maneuvers for interoperability during a crisis situation in the region," Bipindra said.

"It is an indicator of how the future will unfold in the region's geopolitical dynamics," he said, adding it also seems like the initial flicker at the end of the tunnel for the Quad itself expanding with inclusion of other democracies that have stakes in the region such as France and the U.K.

"Already, there is talk of Quad emerging as Asia's NATO."

Cadets of the Surcouf French Navy frigate arrive at Cochin Port, in Kochi, India on March 30.   © AFP/Jiji

Isabelle Saint-Mezard, an associate researcher at the French Institute of International Relations, said the upcoming La Perouse exercise signals that France "is a stakeholder in like-minded and variable-geometry coalitions" that want to promote the law of the sea, freedom of navigation, peaceful resolution of conflicts, and to sum up, a rules-based multilateral order.

"This type of cooperation, which is flexible and still not very institutionalized, seems to be a privileged tool for action in the immense space that is the Indo-Pacific," she told Nikkei Asia.

Days ahead of La Perouse, the navies of India and the U.S. also conducted an exercise in the eastern Indian Ocean Region on March 28-29. The Indian side deployed guided-missile frigate INS Shivalik and long-range maritime patrol aircraft P8I, while the USS Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group participated from the American side. An Indian navy spokesperson said the exercise consolidated synergy and interoperability achieved during Malabar 2020.

In La Perouse, two French warships -- Tonnerre and Surcouf -- will participate. The two vessels form the Jeanne d'Arc battlegroup, which set sail from France in February for a five-month deployment in the Indo-Pacific with the aim of providing training to a new cohort of 148 French naval officer cadets.

"I look forward to the La Perouse joint exercise, during which these two French navy ships will be joined by ships from India, Australia, Japan, and the USA for a concrete demonstration of multilateralism at sea and our commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific," French ambassador to India, Emmanuel Lenain, said in the Wednesday statement.

Pankaj Jha, a former deputy director of India's National Security Council Secretariat and now a professor of defense and strategic studies at O.P. Jindal Global University, said the larger aim of the exercise is to build a nexus on two counts: a trilateral France-Australia-India mechanism, and Quad plus France in the Indian Ocean.

"France has been aware of the fact that Chinese have been making certain under sea moves [scavenging for minerals and resources], particularly in French territories in the Indian Ocean, so they wanted [to do something that] acts as a deterrent and also as a collaborative effort," he added.

In an opinion piece published in the Chinese Communist Party's mouthpiece Global Times on Mar. 16, Beijing-based military analyst Wei Dongxu called the upcoming drill "a publicity stunt" and Quad "a loosely knit group which was established for temporary interests of its members."

At the same time, Wei wrote, the military moves of Quad "are obviously aimed" at China. "What China needs to do now is to improve its own military capabilities and to strengthen its comprehensive maritime combat abilities while proving to the world that a stronger Chinese navy will safeguard world peace and stability."

Analysts in New Delhi say that while Beijing is making lots of noise over such exercises in the region, it is mainly concerned about some of the countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, including those with which it has territorial disputes in South China Sea, tilting toward a Quad plus set-up.

"If France joins Quad plus it doesn't make much difference to the Chinese, but if Vietnam, Indonesia or the Philippines joins the Quad then it makes a huge difference [to Beijing] because these countries will offer their naval bases [in the region to Quad members]," Srikanth Kondapalli, a professor of Chinese Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, told Nikkei Asia.

"The French will have to come this far to conduct exercises and obviously, after that, they will have to go home. But, the Vietnamese, Filipinos, Indonesians or Malaysians are here only and they will offer their naval bases, which will aggravate the situation for the Chinese," he added.

Meanwhile, two Royal Australian Navy ships, HMA Ships Anzac (III) and Sirius -- which are conducting a two-month deployment throughout the Northeast Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia -- will participate in La Perouse.

"We are strongly committed to our vital work with regional partners to address shared challenges, including our region's maritime security," Australia's acting defense minister Marise Payne said on March 15. "Regular cooperation with our partners and neighbors is critical for maintaining a peaceful, inclusive, sovereign and resilient Indo-Pacific region, where the rights of all states are respected."

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