(This was originally posted in The Hindustan Times by Shishir Gupta)
The Indian Navy, its partners in the QUAD grouping, and, its strategic allies France and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) will be part of complex interoperability exercises involving carrier strike groups, anti-submarine warfare aircraft and attack submarines in April– a move aimed at projecting their dominance from the Persian Gulf to the Malacca Straits.
The UAE will be joining India and France for the first time in a trilateral naval exercise in the strategically important Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman in late April under the Varuna banner. This is scheduled between April 25 and 27.
While dates of the QUAD-plus France naval exercise has to be firmed up on paper, India, the US, Australia, and Japan (the members of QUAD), with France will showcase their naval strength and commitment to freedom of navigation in the Bay of Bengal from April 4 to 7 with missile-guided destroyers, frigates, submarines and surveillance aircraft practising complex manoeuvres under the La Perouse banner.
Both La Perouse and Varuna last took place in 2019, but were cancelled due to global pandemic last year. UAE’s naval chief confirmed his country’s participation in the Varuna trilateral exercises.
Analysts say Indo-French naval cooperation will further deepen when French navy ships pay a visit to Kochi port in March. This will be followed by La Perouse. Then, in late April, the French Carrier Strike Group led by aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle will enlarge its footprint in the Persian Gulf with an Indian Kolkata-class destroyer and UAE naval forces under the Varuna banner.
As India’s sole aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya is under maintenance after a long deployment arising from India’s stand-off with China in East Ladakh, Indian destroyers, P-8I aircraft and a submarine will participate in the QUAD-plus exercise. During the naval drills, the warships will practise formation sailing, live firing, communications, search, rescue, damage control and personnel transfers. The US is also not sending its aircraft carrier to La Perouse; at least three of its carrier strike groups have been deployed throughout the year in South China Sea and Indo-Pacific.
According to a former Indian Navy western commander who asked not to be named, La Perouse shows that the QUAD-plus maritime force can work together anywhere in the Indo-Pacific as there is convergence on shared values, democracy, freedom of navigation and cooperation. The aim of the QUAD-plus navies is to project dominance in the Indo-Pacific from the Gulf of Aden to the north and far Pacific, touching the western coast of US.
The political substance to these exercises will be given by the meeting of QUAD leaders in a virtual summit this month followed by the visit of the US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin to India later this month to renew close defence cooperation under the Biden Administration. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to meet French President Emmanuel Macron around the EU summit in Portugal in May.
According to analysts, QUAD-plus’ primary emphasis is a free Indo-Pacific – something that has become increasingly important in light of Beijing’s expansionist plans for the region.
After the on-going stand-off with PLA in East Ladakh, the Indian Navy along with its partners including UAE and France has clear objectives in the Indo-Pacific. While the formidable US navy will hold the fort beyond Malacca Straits, the Indian Navy along with its key allies will be first responders in the Indian Ocean. The visit of External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar to Maldives, Seychelles and Mauritius this month was to ensure that Indian navy ships can call in at naval ports in these countries, thereby increasing their range.