A Rafale fighter flies over France's aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle

by Indrani Bagchi

NEW DELHI: As a French anti-aircraft destroyer docked in Mumbai last week to operationalise a landmark agreement with India to exchange logistics support, it signalled the deepening of India’s defence and security ties with France, particularly in the Indian Ocean region.

However, this does not mean France is going to become a member of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), the biggest regional grouping, any time soon. France has been pushing for a membership slot in the IORA for some time, arguing its overseas territories Reunion Islands and Mayotte made it an Indian Ocean resident power.

South Africa, whose President Cyril Ramaphosa was the chief guest for the Republic Day celebrations this year, has led the opposition against France joining the grouping. The other countries opposing France’s membership are Madagascar and Comoros. Pretoria’s objection, conveyed to India, was that France was only in the Indian Ocean because of its colonial possessions.

A long-standing opposition to colonialism has come in the way of a 21st century strategic partnership between France and India. A similar quandary led India to vote against its strategic partner, the US, as it stood with Mauritius on the sovereignty of Chagos Islands.

Established in 1997, IORA aims to achieve “sustained growth and balanced development of the region and of the member states, and to create common ground for regional cooperation”. However, at the most recent IORA meeting in Durban on November 2, India said it wants the grouping to expand its horizons. Junior minister for external affairs VK Singh said, “India supports intensification and invigoration of IORA activities, from renewable energy and blue economy to maritime safety and security. In a changing global Geo-Political scenario, IORA has a vital role to play in realising our common vision for region.”

In Durban, Maldives was inducted as a member with Indian help despite some objections by Mauritius. Myanmar however, did not make the cut. Neither did France, although France has been a dialogue partner of IORA, along with the US, Germany, China, Japan, Britain, Egypt and Turkey, with South Korea joining as the newest dialogue partner. France, sources said, would have to conduct some of its own diplomacy with the opposing nations to soften them.