What’s behind France’s interest in navy ties from Mediterranean to Asia?

Naval exercises that may unite France, the UAE, the US, Japan and Australia could provide a major message of strategic partnering.

Naval drills are defining new relationships from the Eastern Mediterranean to the Gulf of Oman and beyond.
France is playing a leading role, according to new reports. A recent drill by the Israeli navy called “Noble Dina” included France and Cyprus for the first time last week. It usually includes Israel and Greece. These types of drills are important and symbolic.

They also appear to link countries like France, India and Greece with a group of countries that have shared interests. These include the UAE, India, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, France, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel. A wider strategic pattern also links some of these countries to the Quad nations; Japan, Australia, the US and India.
France appears to be increasing its role in these drills. It is partnering with India and the UAE in an exercise in late April, according to the Hindustan Times. This will take place in the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman in late April. According to that report, the “UAE will be joining India and France for the first time in a trilateral naval exercise in the strategically important Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman under the Varuna banner.”

Varuna is a French-India exercise usually. The UAE has grown closer to India in recent years.
Why does this matter?

India recently took part in the first virtual Quad summit with the US, Australia and Japan. It comes a decade-and-a-half after these four countries entered into this limited strategic relationship. Much more can be done and it is clear that France and other states like the UAE want to do more with some of these countries.

India’s Prime Minister, who also has a close relationship with Israel’s Prime Minister, praised the Quad meeting on Friday. “Reiterated India’s commitment to a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific in line with our vision of SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region),” he wrote.

Naval exercises that may unite France, the UAE, the US, Japan and Australia could provide a major message of strategic partnering linking an immense amount of ocean, from Australia to France, some 12,000km.

Various interpretations of this grouping of countries or the potential for cooperation tend to see it as responding to a more aggressive China. The US national security strategy foresees a need to confront China, a “near-peer” adversary. However, there is division on how the US will do that. Some see this as a new “cold war” and others was diplomacy “engagement.”

Regardless of how things play out in the Pacific in US-China potential rivalry, one that may also include Australia and Japan or other states, the picture from Australia to France, across the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Oman and then via Suez to the Eastern Mediterranean is potentially a more interesting strategic tie and corridor.

Reports also indicate that India’s Air Force is inducting its second squadron of Rafale fighter aircraft in mid-April, according to the Times of India. In January another interesting development took place as the French Air Force took part in the Desert Knight exercise with India. According to Mahmoud Gamal, who comments on Egyptian security issues, the “next stop” for the aircraft that took part was in the UAE, Egypt and Greece. It’s hard to ignore those symbolic linkages of India, France, the UAE, Greece and Egypt.

When Greece hosted the Philia Forum in February it also invited France, Jordan and Iraq. It hosted foreign ministers of Egypt, the UAE, Cyprus, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. The Egyptian and French navies also met last November, and they carried out a traditional “passing” meeting in early March. France’s annual Jeanne D’Arc deployment, which will include the Varuna drill.

On the one hand all of these naval meetings could appear to be just part of annual exercises. However the overall picture is of more meetings and more strategic discussions and more linkages between air and naval assets. For instance when Rafale jets flew from France to India in January they were refueled over the UAE and also stopped in Al Dhafra base, Wion News noted. Al Dhafra base has been key to the US F-35 deployment to the Middle East. US F-35s from Al Dhafra base in the UAE flew to take part in three Enduring Lightning drills with Israel in 2020. Once again, the network and hub of bases like this and the larger picture it presents appears clear and it appears to link France increasingly with countries like Egypt, the UAE, India and other like-minded states.

French Defense Minister Florence Parly had encouraged greater robust commitments by the US and other to naval security in the Gulf of Oman in 2019. The UAE hosted the European-led mission at the time to provide security of the seas after Iranian alleged attacks on shipping in May and June 2019.

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