New Delhi: After their first historic summit last week, the Indo-Pacific Quad comprising India, the US, Japan and Australia, France is now set to steel the rapidly evolving grouping.
From April 4-7, France will participate in a five-nation naval exercise, called La Perouse, which will include all the four Quad members. These naval manoeuvres will be held in the Bay of Bengal, highly placed sources told India Narrative.
Later in April, India, France and the UAE will hold another naval exercise. During these manoeuvres in the Arabian Sea codenamed 'Varuna', France will be fielding Charles de Gaulle, its formidable 42,000 tonne aircraft carrier.
The Hindustan Times is reporting that India's western fleet with its newly appointed commander Rear Admiral Ajay Kochhar will be conducting advanced exercises with the French carrier task force.
In a clear message to China, France will deliver seven more Rafale fighters next month, completing the first squadron of the French omni-role fighters, with Ambala air base as their peacetime location. The remaining 18 fighters will be deployed at Hashimara in the eastern sector to cover the strategic Siliguri corridor, facing China. French Foreign Minister Jean Yves Le Drian will also be arriving in India in April to deliver a lecture at a think-tank, apart from pursuing a political dialogue with his Indian interlocutors.
Both India and France have converging perception over freedom of navigation in Indo-Pacific, with Paris appointing a special envoy for the region. The next step would be to weave the Indo-French strategic track into the broader Indo-Pacific narrative anchored by Quad.
India is also set to further steel its military clout in the Indo-Pacific region in the near future, following the visit to New Delhi of US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin later this month.
This will be a crucial visit as it is likely to clear the ground for India's $3 billion purchase of for 39 armed Predator drones.
"These are awesome machines which can deliver high quality images from the Sunda strait in the Indonesian archipelago to the Gulf of Aden. Besides they have enough punch to remotely launch punishing strikes" an official source said.
Technically known as MQ-9B drones, they can fly for about 48 hours and carry a payload of about 1,700 kilograms. Apart from establishing vigil over the waters, these machines can be a handful when deployed in the tough border terrain facing China and Pakistan, allies in a possible two-from war with India.
After the summit, the Quad's attention is also riveted to the East China Sea, where there has been a sharp escalation of military tensions between China and Japan. Both countries lay claim to Senkaku islands, called Diaoyu isles by China. Control over these islands can influence the movement of rival ships heading towards the Miyako strait, the 250 km-wide passageway between the Miyako and Okinawa islands. This is a major choke-point through which China's People's Liberation Army Navy can channel into the West Pacific, dominated by the US Navy.
"China's real intention is not just to dominate but control the Miyako strait," says Susumu Takai, special research fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation in Tokyo. He points out that establishing a hold on Senkaku islands would be a step in the direction of dominating Miyako strait.
Tensions between China and Japan are turning white hot after Beijing passed a new law that authorises use of force by its coast guard in contested waters.
On Tuesday, Defence and Foreign Ministers of Japan and the US will meet, where they are expected to reconfirm that the Senkaku islands are subject to the bilateral security treaty, which stipulates defence obligations by the United States.
The four ministers are also expected to discuss the possibility of holding joint drills by Japan's Self-Defence Forces and the US military, assuming an emergency on and around the islands, Kyodo news agency reported.
"This is a very potent and looming hazard in East China Sea especially because of China's new Coast Guard Law that may inadvertently result in use of kinetic force by each side in chain reaction, resulting in East China Sea becoming a perpetual flashpoint over Senkaku Islands, much like Taiwan Strait," a China watcher who did not wish to be named said.
The expert added that it would be "important to see what specific role that the role that the Quad in such an inflammable scenario", which can be the grouping's first testing ground.