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India-France-Australia hold Indo-Pacific trilateral in Quad backdrop

India-France-Australia hold Indo-Pacific trilateral in Quad backdrop

In what was apparently a Track-2 initiative, India virtually held the first-ever trilateral dialogue with Australia and France last month for enhancing cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region.

Indo-Pacific, which has gained prominence and importance in recent times as a potential future battleground, has been attracting nations to come out with their strategy on it, under the rubric of numerous groupings, big and small. France was the first European nation, followed by Germany now, both of whom talk of inclusivity, free passage and international rules-based order.

<a href="https://indianarrative.com/world/quad-meet-india-for-strong-info-pacific-and-open-seas-16325.html"><strong>Read more: Quad meet: India for strong Indo-Pacific and open seas</strong></a>

France has a presence in both – the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean in the form of island groups and physical military presence in Djibouti and UAE. With 93% of its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) located in the Indian and Pacific Oceans and the region being home to 1.5 million French people, and 8,000 soldiers stationed, it was natural for France to be the first European country to spell out its Indo-Pacific strategy in May 2018.

“The global economy’s centre of gravity has shifted from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Six members of the G20 (Australia, China, India, Indonesia, Japan and South Korea) are located in the region. The maritime trade routes linking Europe and the Persian Gulf to the Pacific Ocean, via the Indian Ocean and South-East Asia, have become very important. The region’s growing share of world trade and investment means that it is at the forefront of globalization.” The French President added,” Our goal is to act as an inclusive and stabilizing mediating power.”

France has since then stressed for an increased EU involvement in the region. Nations have maintained that the strategy is not aimed at China. Each European country has its separate national interests and an independent relationship with China, but there are voices coming out expressing skepticism about security challenges.

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A former diplomat explains, “Most European countries had left security matters to the US, while dealing with China economically. But now the European nations are sitting up and taking notice of the security scenario, as China has reached Europe through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), lease and debt diplomacy and now the pandemic. Smaller countries like Hungary, Greece have their own economic interests, so its difficult to say if a single and common EU strategy would work for all.”

It may be noted, in March 2019, the European Commission in its economic relation review document with China proposed 10 action clauses of which two were significant—to safeguard against potential serious security implications for critical digital infrastructure, a common EU approach to the security of 5G networks is needed and to detect and raise awareness of security risks posed by foreign investment in critical assets, technologies and infrastructure, member states should ensure the swift, full and effective implementation of the regulation on screening of foreign direct investment.

Relationships largely defined by national interests, may be different for each nation, therefore having a common and a large Indo-Pacific grouping under one umbrella may not be feasible, but joint bilateral military exercises, smaller groupings, and having strategic military bases are all more than adding up to the larger Indo-Pacific tapestry.

With Germany’s $200 billion and America’s $500 billion trade relationship with China, the world is witnessing a slow and steady overhauling of relationships amidst internal political pressures.

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Walter J. Lindner, German Ambassador to India says, “Indo-Pacific has been growing in economic importance. Half the world’s population resides here. Supply chains and sea transport channels go through this area. We would like to show inclination for partnership with those countries which share the same values as us, have the same federal democratic structures like India. India and Germany may
not be neighbors but we have a lot in common like both our countries rely on multilateralism and a rules based international order. As for a common EU strategy on the Indo-Pacific, we will take it up with France and then within the EU and see if a common strategy can be built on.”

The second foreign ministerial Quad meet taking place in Japan on Oct 6-7 is the first meet outside the UN, which makes it significant.

Its interesting to note that when former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recommended the idea of a Quad in 2007, Australia walked out of it in 2008 under Chinese pressure. With a trade of $103 billion, Australia with its heavy economic dependence on China has been dependent on the US for its security. Though not a NATO member, Australia’s strongest military ally is the US, under the ANZAC Pact. With changing times, Australia—now a Quad member, has shown keenness in being part of the Malabar exercise, held annually between the navies of India, US and Japan.

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Though the Quad positions itself as a non-military economic grouping, still questions have been raised, especially when like-minded countries of the Indo-Pacific—New Zealand, South Korea and Vietnam were invited for a video-conference during the coronavirus pandemic, as part of Quad-Plus.

An External Affairs Ministry diplomat says: “There would be joint military exercises and training, humanitarian assistance programs etc, but a large Indo-Pacific grouping is not manageable as each nation has its own interests which may cross paths with others.”

The first India-France-Australia Trilateral Dialogue was held between Harsh Vardhan Shringla, Foreign Secretary of India; François Delattre, Secretary-General, French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs and Frances Adamson, Secretary, Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Smaller regional groupings like Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the Indian Ocean Rim Association and also the Indian Ocean Commission are already active with regular meetings focused on Marine Global Commons. The Covid-19 pandemic has brought nations closer to find a solution and share best practices and domestic responses..