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International relations

With China in mind, India and France deepen military cooperation

Modi and Macron agree to mutual access to naval bases

French President Emmanuel Macron, left, shakes hands with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi ahead of their meeting at Hyderabad House in New Delhi on March 10.   © Reuters

NEW DELHI -- Amid China's growing assertiveness in the region, India and France on Saturday pledged to increase defense cooperation in the Indian Ocean and signed a pact that will provide mutual access to each other's naval bases.

The base accord was one of 14 bilateral agreements signed after talks between visiting French President Emmanuel Macron and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

"I consider today's agreement of the reciprocal logistics support between our armies as a golden step in the history of our close defense cooperation," Modi said at a joint media appearance with Macron. He added that "both of us believe that in future the Indian Ocean region will play a very important role in the happiness, progress and prosperity of the world."

Macron said there is no scope for "hegemonic" power plays when it comes to regional sea lanes. This was an apparent reference to China whose disregard for international laws in the South China Sea and aggressive moves in the Indian Ocean have raised concerns.

Analysts said increased military cooperation was a major outcome of the Modi-Macron meeting. "This is unprecedented," former Indian diplomat Vivek Katju told a local broadcaster. "I do not think India has entered into such a visionary relationship with any country in the past, and this is at a time ... when the Chinese are making fairly assertive moves all around us, in the waters around us and in the Indian Ocean."

The two countries outlined their "shared concerns" about emerging challenges in a summit document, "Joint Strategic Vision of India-France Cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region," which will serve as "a guiding beacon" for strengthening cooperation. These challenges include protecting the environment, maritime security, marine resources, and freedom of navigation and overflight.

The Indo-Pacific region is crucial to both countries. India has a coastline of 7,500 kilometers, more than 1,380 islands and an exclusive maritime economic zone of two million square km. French territory in the Indo-Pacific region includes 1.6 million citizens and an exclusive economic zone of 9.1 sq. km.

"The leaders reiterated that this cooperation will be crucial in order to maintain the safety of international sea lanes for unimpeded commerce and communications in accordance with the international law," a joint statement issued after the leaders' meeting said.

The accord on reciprocal logistics support is "symbolic of the strategic depth and maturity" in bilateral defense ties, it added.

It was noted that Modi's "Make in India" initiative, which aims to boost manufacturing, could offer an opportunity for joint defense industry cooperation in the development and production of military equipment, including the transfer of know-how and technologies.

Macron arrived in New Delhi on Friday for a four-day visit. He was received by Modi with a warm hug, breaking protocol. His visit follows that of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau this month. Trudeau was received on arrival by a junior Indian minister, which was widely seen as a snub.

On Sunday, Modi and Macron will co-chair the founding summit of the International Solar Alliance. "The ISA is a unique effort that brings the world together to harness solar energy and create a cleaner as well as greener future," Modi tweeted on Friday.

India and France established a strategic partnership in 1998, with a focus on civil nuclear, space and defense cooperation. But the two sides have seen greater convergence in recent years in such areas such as maritime security, counter-terrorism and renewable energy.

Annual trade between the two countries is close to $11 billion. "It is a very evenly balanced engagement. We don't have major areas of concerns when it comes to trade," said K. Nagaraj Naidu, a joint secretary in the Indian External Affairs Ministry.

Other bilateral agreements inked on Saturday dealt with the environment; smart city development; railways; implementation of a nuclear power project in India; education; solar energy; and space.

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