51. French Influence in the Indian Ocean Region – A Perspective

(Published in IndraStra Global – Strategic Information & Intelligence Forecasting, 20 May 2015)

France has continued to cultivate and nurture its influence in the Indian Ocean Region through its geographical presence, naval ties and interdependencies developed through military equipment sales.

France has its out posts at Mayotte & La Reunion and military bases in Djibouti and Abu Dhabi. The Mayotte archipelago consists of two major islands and a number of small islets between NE Mozambique and NW Madagascar in the Mozambique Channel. Though geographically it is a part of the Comoro Islands, its people preferred accession to France in 2009. The Foreign Legion detachment in Mayotte has strength of 270 personal and can act as a rapid reaction force. This contingent exercises mainly with Madagascar armed forces, adds to security and maritime surveillance of the Mozambique Channel and can be used for humanitarian assistance tasks in the area. Mayotte has an EEZ of 63,078 sq kms. Reunion (La Reunion) is an island ~120 kms SW of Mauritius and East of Madagascar. Reunion provides a convenient access to sea lines of communications (SLOCS) in eastern and southern coast of Africa. France maintains a small naval presence at Reunion islands through its naval base at Point des Galets, which has a frigate, a support ship and some patrol craft. Reunion has an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of 31, 5058 sq kms.

Republic of Djibouti is strategically located in the horn of Africa, with Gulf of Aden and Red Sea as its eastern borders. It shares its borders with Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea. Djibouti’s location offers a controlling position over the busiest shipping lanes in the world. Its Camp Lemonnier military base (ex France) has been leased to USA and is being upgraded by an investment of $1.4 billion to house over 1000 US Special Forces. France, under a defence treaty, pays €30 million/year for keeping up to 3000 troops under the Forces Françaises de Djibouti. France has also stationed marine, air force and army units at Djibouti with fighter aircrafts at Ambouli airport. Djibouti provides a military access to SLOCS between Red Sea and Indian Ocean, which carry the bulk of French energy supplies. Interestingly, since 2012, China too has got a foothold in Djibouti, as its China Harbour Engineering Company is executing a $64 million project of constructing an ore terminal for export of salt to SE Asia.

In 2009, France signed an agreement with Emirates to operate a military base at Abu Dhabi. The naval base is at port Mina Zayed and can berth French naval ships except aircraft carriers. The air force base is at Al Dhafra which can house fighter aircraft. The Army base (Urban Combat Training and intelligence) is at Zayed and the famous 13th Démi-Brigade de la Légion Étrangère has been relocated to this base from Djibouti, without diluting the French military presence at Djibouti. Abu Dhabi is located near the junction of Straits of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf. This base provides France access to the SLOCS in Persian Gulf and ensures safety of its oil supplies.

In 2011 France has signed an agreement with Kenya for cooperation in the fields of international security, economic partnership, and scientific collaboration amongst others. France has also gifted a patrol boat for helping Kenya in its fight against sea piracy. France has nurtured its relationship with South Africa with which it holds regular military exercises. Both countries are looking for greater cooperation in ensuring maritime security in association with other countries. France, Mozambique and South Africa carried out ‘Operation Oxide’ an anti-piracy naval exercise in 2011.

In addition to the above, the French presence also comprises of its Territory of the French Southern and Antarctica Lands , which have Scattered Islands (around Madagascar),Crozet Islands (South of Madagascar), and the St. Paul, Amsterdam and the Kerguelen Islands in southern Indian Ocean. Further, south, it has its claims in the Antarctica.  The Combined EEZ of all the French territories in the Indian Ocean amounts to nearly 1 million sq kms! The claimed EEZ in the Antarctica region is about 1.7 million sq kms.

Thus it can be seen that France has a significant strategic presence from Emirates in the Persian Gulf, Djibouti in the Gulf of Aden, off Madagascar and down to the Kerguelen islands in the Southern Indian Ocean Region. Further, it has ensured that its national interests in its energy supply lines and the extensive EEZ are carefully monitored and guarded.

The French sphere of influence in the Indian Ocean region has been shaped by a combination of its own energy and EEZ security requirements as well as by forging long-term relationships with countries through supply of military equipment. Its major competitor today is the United States, with which it has friendly relations. However, with China ramping up its own influence in the region by providing lucrative arms deals, affordable infrastructure and a rapidly growing PLA Navy, France would face a serious contender since it is unlikely that it would be able to match the attractive financial packages offered China in the IOR.

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