An Indian sailor stands on INS Viraat as France's aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle lies off the Indian coast at Goa, ahead of the start of the Indo-French Naval exercise 'Varuna 2015.' Photo: AFP/STR

A focus on anti-submarine warfare suggests the 17th edition of Varuna, an annual exercise between the navies of India and France, was aimed at China.

Alarmism over the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s presence in the Indian Ocean is likely misplaced at the moment, but the rapid growth of Chinese naval forces could change things in the future, with Delhi and Paris teaming up in an anti-China front led by the United States.

The second phase of Varuna was conducted off Djibouti from May 22-25, the French Embassy in India revealed last week. The tiny African nation is home to a French base, as well as to China’s first and only overseas naval facility.

Varuna training in the Gulf of Aden saw the involvement of French nuclear attack submarine Amethyste and the INS Kalvari, India’s first Scorpene-class submarine. The two navies conducted detection, tracking and plunge attack operations “while maintaining control over maritime areas and their environment,” the French said.

The first stage of Varuna was held off Goa in early May. Aside from the Amethyste, the French navy deployed its aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, two destroyers, a frigate and a tanker.

This convoy fleet trained with India’s aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya, destroyer INS Chennai, frigate INS Tarkash, Shishumar-class submarine INS Shankul and fleet tanker INS Deepak.

A growing cooperation

France is actively present in the Indian Ocean, where it has overseas territorites and naval outposts. The Charles de Gaulle’s arrival at Changi Naval Base in Singapore on May 28 is a testament to the increasing French commitment to the security of the Indo-Pacific region.

Varuna exercises are aimed at developing interoperability and could contribute to improving the relative strategic position of India and France in the Indian Ocean.

The Indo-French military partnership made substantial progress with the signing of a logistics support agreement last year. At the moment, the Indian navy can dock at France’s naval base on Reunion Island for refueling, and Delhi is negotiating access to the facility in Djibouti.

For their part, the French naval forces have so far used Mumbai and Karwar ports under the 2018 deal.

The two countries have already stepped up cooperation in the field of maritime domain awareness. They have also agreed to exchange information on the Indian Ocean security situation and are working together on a satellite system monitoring naval movements in the vast region.

India is an important buyer of French weapons systems. The Indian government acquired 36 Rafale fighters from France’s Dassault Aviation in 2016 and is developing a submarine program based on Naval Group’s Scorpene-class vessel.

China no threat in Indian Ocean

This year’s Varuna exercises were the largest ever. The two sides trained to hone their submarine-hunting capabilities and likely did it with an eye on the PLA navy’s movements in the Indian Ocean, according to Indian media reports.

But as noted by retired Indian Commodore Abhay Kumar Singh, while China has become a serious strategic challenge for India in the Indian Ocean, it cannot yet be seen as an immediate threat in South Asian waters.

“The Indian Ocean has certainly emerged as an area of overlapping strategic interests between India and China, but as of now Sino-Indian dynamics in the region remains at the level of strategic competition,” Singh told Asia Times.

Singh, a research fellow at the Delhi-based Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, explained that China’s strategic presence had grown through enhanced economic and political engagement with countries in the Indian Ocean region, a near-permanent presence of its navy there and the military base in Djibouti. But the “the intractable and unresolved” border dispute in the Himalayan region is the real bone of contention between the two Asian giants.

James R Holmes, the JC Wylie chair of maritime strategy at the US Naval War College, essentially agrees with this analysis.

“The Indian Ocean remains a secondary theater for China’s navy and military, whereas it is obviously the primary one for India, the resident great power in the region,” he said.

“That means India has advantages in geography and political commitment to managing its surroundings, having almost its whole military on the scene, even though it lags behind China in economic and military terms.”

Deterring or balancing China?

It is worth noting that the Chinese submarine presence in the Indian Ocean region has reduced significantly in recent months. It has been reported that the last passage was detected in October 2018, even though some say Chinese submarines are now capable of traveling more silently, so their detection can be difficult.

“If China strengthens its strategic profile in the region through the addition of new military bases, along with a qualitative and quantitative increase in its military presence, India’s perception of Chinese policy in the Indian Ocean will definitely change,” Singh emphasized.

In this scenario, the naval partnership between India and France could contribute to countering a more assertive Chinese navy in the Indian Ocean basin.

Singh views the Indo-French strategic partnership as a middle power alignment in the midst of strategic uncertainty originating from ambivalence in the external engagement of the Unites States and China’s emerging efforts to reshape the global order.

“China’s attempt to reshape the regional geopolitical order in the Indian Ocean is unarguably a strategic challenge,” he said. “However, the Varuna exercise needs to be seen more as a collaborative effort to balance China than a demonstration of deterrence.”

Holmes believes the French and Indian navies have enough combined power to help the US face the PLA navy from East Africa to the Malacca Strait.

“Strategic competition will not pit the entire Indian armed forces against the entire Chinese armed forces. Whatever fraction of the PLA Beijing is willing to spare for operations in the Indian Ocean is the standard of sufficiency for the Indian military, and I would certainly say India remains ahead of that standard,” he said.

“Add in the French contingent as France and Great Britain return east of Suez, and I would feel fairly comfortable were I sitting in Indian Prime Minister Modi’s seat.”

For the US scholar, military cooperation among like-minded countries in the Indo-Pacific reinforces deterrence of China.

“Of course it is not predestined that India and its friends will stay ahead, so economic and military trends are worth tracking,” Holmes added.

He insisted that countries supporting maritime freedom should continue banding together and learning to work together on the operational and tactical levels. In his view, if the US and its allies and partners do that, they “may yet deter China from major mischief.”

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