India joins France, US to counter China in Indo-Pacific

A meeting between Modi and Macron in Paris saw Indian Space Research Organization and the Centre National d'études Spatiales or CNES agreeing on a plan for implementing a March 2018 agreement. (Photo credit: Reuters)

India has joined France and the US in calling for a free Indo-Pacific, tacitly opposing maritime aggression by China in the region.

The move comes against the backdrop of the communist country echoing the stance of its 'iron brother' Pakistan in slamming New Delhi for its recent moves on Jammu and Kashmir.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi joined French President Emmanuel Macron to reaffirm "shared commitment to maintaining freedom of navigation, particularly in the Indo-Pacific zone". A meeting between Modi and Macron in Paris saw the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) and the Centre National d'études Spatiales (CNES) agreeing on a plan to implement a March 2018 agreement to build a network of satellites over the Indo-Pacific, ostensibly to keep a watch on the warships of the People's Liberation Army Navy of China.

Senior diplomats of India and the United States also had two back-to-back meetings in California on Thursday and Friday where they agreed to pursue the "quest for a free, open, inclusive, peaceful and prosperous Indo-Pacific" — again sending out a clear message to China.

China's expansionist aspirations in the Indo-Pacific were back under focus after the communist country on August 13 redeployed its survey vessel — Haiyang Dizhi — near Vanguard Bank in the Exclusive Economic Zone of Vietnam, obviously to reassert its claim on the disputed South China Sea.

The vessel, which was deployed first on August 7 but withdrawn after diplomatic outcry from around the world, is now being escorted by at least two ships of the China Coast Guard stationed nearby. It has been deployed not far from an offshore oil block, where ONGC Videsh of India has 45%, Rosneft of Russia has 35% and PetroVietnam of Vietnam has 20% stake. The Chinese Navy and Coast Guard officials used loudspeakers from the vessels and the escorting ships to claim China's "sovereignty" on the South China Sea.

The Modi-Macron meeting on Thursday saw France and India agreeing to coordinate action at the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and undertake, along with other interested states, a joint project for reinforcing assets for combating piracy and all kinds of maritime trafficking in the Southern Indian Ocean.

New Delhi joined the clamour against aggressive moves by Beijing in the Indo-Pacific after China joined Pakistan to oppose India's decisions to strip Jammu and Kashmir of special status and reorganise it into two Union Territories. Beijing had denounced New Delhi's decisions as unilateral and unacceptable, rejecting the Modi government's argument that the moves on J&K were internal affairs of India. China also joined Pakistan to make an unsuccessful attempt last week to bring back the Kashmir issue on the agenda of the United Nations Security Council.

Beijing's repeated critical statements on New Delhi's Kashmir moves struck a jarring note to the bonhomie that marked the relations between India and China over the past 16 months since Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping had an “informal summit” at Wuhan in Central China in April 2018. The summit brought about a thaw in the India-China relations, which had hit a new low over the 72-day military standoff at Doklam Plateau in western Bhutan in June-August, 2017.

Though Modi is set to host Xi for a second "informal summit" in October, China's reaction to India's Kashmir decision cast a shadow over the future of the détente between the two neighbours.

France has substantial geopolitical interests in western Indian Ocean and southern Pacific, with a large number of its military personnel deployed in the region. France has territorial control over Réunion and Mayotte islands in the Indian Ocean and New Caledonia and French Polynesia in the Pacific. While over 60% of its vast Exclusive Economic Zone is in the Pacific, over 20% is in the Indian Ocean. Djibouti on the Horn of Africa has a base of French Army.

Paris, however, is not interested in joining the quad (India, Japan, Australia and the US) as it is keen not to irk China. It, however, does not have any hesitation to step up bilateral defence and security cooperation with India, with particular focus on the Indo-Pacific, sources said.

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