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Southeast Asia

ASEAN – A Pacific NATO?

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The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) is a union of nations that was born out of a desire for economic modernization and development as well as a common fear during the Cold War; communism. Despite many organizations/unions being formed in this era, ASEAN was one of the few that were able to survive the end of the Cold War.

Even though one of the original mandates, the existential threat of communism, has been eliminated, it still has managed to carry on with an updated focus. With the rise of China, ASEAN members have begun to sign defense treaties with one another separately as well as with the US. It is only a matter of time before the organization evolves to become a security alliance.

ASEAN evolved from a previous organization known as the Association of Southeast Asia (ASA), which consisted of Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Shortly thereafter, on August 8, 1967, ASEAN was inaugurated by the signing of the Bangkok Declaration by five countries; Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand.

Despite the creation of the union, ASEAN members had internal squabble and bickering with one another and did not illustrate a semblance of a regional organization. The internal dynamics began to change with the conclusion of the Vietnam War and the US withdrawal. The balance of power shifted with the US defeat and the unification of Vietnam under a Communist regime. From that point on until the end of the Cold War, Vietnam along with its benefactor, the Soviet Union, became the main threat to the organization. The Vietnamese aggression into Cambodia and other actions caused the union to not only strengthen in unity but also proclaim a unified response to Vietnam’s actions.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the fear of Communism and Vietnam evaporated amongst the ASEAN members. As a result, ASEAN began to focus on regional trade and security issues. In July of 1995, the regional calculus changed. The former nemesis, Vietnam, not only established diplomatic relations with the US but became a member of ASEAN. Shortly after, Laos and Burma joined the organization. With the inclusion of the entire region, the focus of the organization shifted to economic growth, but also resolving outstanding territorial issues. Even though China had not been a formal ally, ASEAN and China were united in their stance towards the Soviet Union and Vietnam during the Cold War. However, with the Cold War over and China’s rise, ASEAN had its eyes on a new antagonist.

China has consistently held the position that it prefers bilateral negotiations over multilateral negation when it comes to discussions of the South China Sea. China is a large nation both physically, demographically, economically and militarily, certainly relative to the other nations of the region. The imposing stature of China can be more influential when dealing with the different Southeast Asian members singularly rather than in a plurality. Another major premise behind this tactic of negotiation is that China does not want to lend any credence or recognition to ASEAN.

China’s claim and desire to recover the lost territories in the South China Sea due to the Century of Humiliation is seen as aggression and expansionist by ASEAN. They see China’s slow expansion as an approach to seizing the resource-rich area without provoking too much international outcry. Rather than a full out military operation, China uses time as a weapon and incrementally expands in the region without drawing much global attention, according to ASEAN.    

China’s reticence to engage ASEAN as an entity is seen by many as a divide and conquer tactic towards the Southeast Asian nations. The prevailing sentiment in the region appears to be that China is a threat to the stability and peace of the region.

As a bloc of nations, ASEAN’s goal was to help the US contain Vietnam and the Soviet Union in the region. With the Cold War gone, the organization has set its sight on China as a threat to the region. Washington has fully supported the efforts of ASEAN and its members going to the extent of establishing military relations with almost all of them and supplying most with arms.

China’s only escape from its geographical prison is through the sea, which is now littered with the US military. China views ASEAN similar to how the Soviet Union perceived NATO. Even though ASEAN does not possess the military regime that characterizes NATO it is slowly getting there. China views ASEAN as a nascent military coalition and collective security arrangement that is backed by the US military.

ASEAN members in the last decade have witnessed an exponential increase in bilateral defense and security arrangements with one another and foreign powers that China views as hostile in some respects. The head of the Indonesian army referred to the myriad of bilateral alliances amongst ASEAN members as a “defense spider web in ASEAN.” The discussion of a multilateral ASEAN security regime is no longer an afterthought or whisper, but actual discussions are taking place by ASEAN members as well as supported by the US and Japan. Members will no longer feel obligated to peace first, but rather use its military power, backed in some cases by the US, to challenge China. Diplomacy will no longer be the preferred approach. Such a coalition will only further isolate and contain China. In addition, these nations are in control of the important commercial straits that not only supply China’s economy, but also fuel its growth as an aspiring global power.

Since 1993, China has been a net importer of fuel and almost all of it comes through the Malacca Strait and the South China Sea. Such an alliance could cripple China and threatens the existence of the regime because of its ability to control the vital straits to China. Thus, China has been reticent since the beginning to give credence to ASEAN in the hopes of working bilaterally with the nations of the region rather than collectively. However with the continual support of the US and Japan, ASEAN has managed to get China to become a signatory to the Code of Conduct, which entails a behavior of peaceful resolution of issues regarding the South China Sea. However, the growing militarism of ASEAN and the potential for this nascent military alliance to actually become a multilateral security regime could not only threaten the code of conduct but isolate and contain China further. The balance of power is tipping in favor of ASEAN, but China – which sees itself as a victim of occupation once before – will not allow itself to be subjugated at the hands of foreign nations again.

Luis Durani is currently employed in the oil and gas industry. He previously worked in the nuclear energy industry. He has a M.A. in international affairs with a focus on Chinese foreign policy and the South China Sea, MBA, M.S. in nuclear engineering, B.S. in mechanical engineering and B.A. in political science. He is also author of "Afghanistan: It’s No Nebraska – How to do Deal with a Tribal State" and "China and the South China Sea: The Emergence of the Huaqing Doctrine." Follow him for other articles on Instagram: @Luis_Durani

Southeast Asia

The National Unity Government in Myanmar: Role and Challenges

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Top row, left to right: Mahn Win Khaing Than, U Win Myint, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Duwa Lashi La. Bottom row, left to right: Daw Zin Mar Aung, Dr. Lian Hmung Sakhong, Dr Zaw Wai Soe, Dr. Tu Hkawng

The continuing crisis in Myanmar has got a new momentum when the elected parliamentarians of the National League for Democracy (NLD), along with ethnic groups have formed National Unity Government (NUG) based on federal democratic principles. It marks a new milestone of the anti-Junta struggle after about three months of protests and civil disobedience movement since the military takeover on 1 February 2021. It is considered a parallel civilian-led government against the military-led State Administration Council (SAC).It has come into being when the country has been facing its worst crisis ever, along with the complex political dynamics. As we see claims and counterclaims from NUG and the military regime, it is worthwhile to understand the role and challenges of the NUG.

Formation of the Government

The opponents of Myanmar’s junta formally announced the establishment of a National Unity Government (NUG) on 16 April, 2021.It came in the wake of mounting brutality and murders of protesting civilians by the ruthless military regime. The NUG includes a president, state counsellor, vice president, prime minister and 11 ministers for 12 ministries. There are also 12 deputy ministers appointed by the CRPH.  Of the 26 total cabinet members, 13 belong to ethnic nationalities, and eight are women. In the new government, Mahn Win Khaing Than, an ethnic Karen and former House Speaker under the NLD government, is the country’s prime minister, while President U Win Myint and State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi retain their positions. The vice president is Duwa Lashi La, the president of the Kachin National Consultative Assembly.

It has unveiled a 20-page Federal Democracy Charter, which is based on an interim constitution drafted between 1990 and 2008 by NLD lawmakers elected in 1990 and ethnic armed forces in Myanmar’s border areas. The goal of the NUG is to establish an alternative government – a sort of internal government-in-exile – that can compete with the junta for international recognition and spearhead what is likely to be a long campaign to defeat it. The NUG is aimed at uniting anti-coup groups, ethnic armed organizations, and other opponents of the junta. It has pledged the “eradication of dictatorship” and the creation of an inclusive federal democracy “where all citizens can live peacefully”.

Reckoning the Role of the NUG

Roadmap for a Democratic Government

The Federal Democracy Charter provides a roadmap for a democratic government of Myanmar abolishing the current constitution. It includes plans to establish a national convention to draft a new constitution. Diversity and consensus mark the formation of the NUG, which addresses the multi-ethnic and multi-national nature of the state of Myanmar. The NUG hopes that it will bring all ethnic nationalities on board as it represents the great diversity and strength of this great nation of Myanmar. The new government aims at maintaining inclusiveness in the governance system aligning all ethnic groups. Calling it “the peoples’ government” veteran democracy activist Min Ko Naing emphasized the unity between the pro-democracy movement and autonomy-seeking ethnic minority groups. The understanding between and among the democratic forces as well as ethnic groups and Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) organizers may facilitate peace and unity in Myanmar.

Pressure on the Military Regime

The formation of NUG will exert a major political pressure on the post-coup military regime. The two-part charter of NUG lays out a plan to “weaken the governance mechanisms” of the military regime by discrediting the Tatmadaw, support the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), and make arrangements for “national defence” by forming a federal army. Representatives of the NUG state that there will be “no compromise” between their Government and the military regime unless the group’s demands are met. These demands include: restoring the country’s democratically elected leaders and parliamentarians from the November election, ending to violence against civilians, removing soldiers from the streets, and releasing political prisoners. Meanwhile, many argue that Myanmar is on the verge of spiralling into a failed state and stands on the brink of civil war at an unprecedented scale.

Managing Support of the Ethnic Groups

The formation of NUG offers new hope for Myanmar to increase interactions with diverse ethnic and religious groups. The 10 ethnic armed organizations’ Peace Process Steering Team (PPST) has given its unwavering support to Myanmar’s striking civil servants and the ousted government’s Federal Democracy Charter. Some ethnic communities have already termed it as Myanmar’s “spring revolution” and pledged to join the fight against the junta if it doesn’t stop the killing immediately or meet calls to restore democracy. Analysts say that plans to unite ethnic groups with the majority ethnic Burman people will take time, but that the signs of cohesion are slowly forming, including National Unity Government in accordance with the will and demand of ethnic political parties, ethnic armed resistance organizations, and mass protest movements. Notably, the inclusivity and diversity of the nature of the formation of the shadow government is likely to forge consensus building it halting the outrage of the military.

Marshaling Regional and Global Support

Garnering regional and global support is the prime motivation behind the NUG. The NUG has already called on Southeast Asian countries to boost their engagement and support for the body. According to the NUG representatives, some nations, including some Western countries and a member country of the Arab World that experienced the Arab Spring, are already intending to formally recognize the NUG as the country’s legitimate government. The joint statement of the G7 Foreign and Development Ministers’ Meeting held in London on 5 May 2021 welcomed the creation of the NUG. The Special Advisory Council for Myanmar, a group of international experts including former United Nations officials, hailed the creation of the NUG as historic and said it was the legitimate government. Many other international groups have called for the NUG’s legitimacy to be recognized. The International Trade Union Confederation recognizes its legitimacy. Two international rights organizations – Fortify Rights and Rohingya Organisation U.K. (BROUK) urged southeast Asian leaders to work with the newly formed anti-coup unity government in Myanmar to restore democracy, putting an end to the illegal military takeover.

ASEAN has a unique role in resolving the Myanmar crisis. Global actors – both states and civil society – strongly argue that ASEAN should work with the newly formed NUG in Myanmar and the broader international community to end the Myanmar military junta’s attacks and ensure a transition to democratic, civilian rule. After filing the case against General Min Aung Hlainga head of the junta leader’s arrival in Jakarta to attend an ASEAN summit, the shadow government has asked the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) to arrest the coup leader. A letter to Interpol said Min Aung Hlaing was a criminal and terrorist for his crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing in Rakhine State and must be tried at both international courts.

Challenges Ahead

Few challenges need to be considered in assessing the future of the NUG. While the shadow government has expectations for expanding support among socio-ethnic and religious groups, more violence may dampen hopes for national reconciliation, as the military junta regime has not retreated from its brutal and repressive moves. The announcement of a new unity government is likely to push Myanmar into a dangerous new phase of its crisis with urban upheaval, a collapsing economy. Internationally, the formation of the NUG will confront foreign governments with the difficult choice of whether to recognize and throw the full force of their support behind the alternative government. Recently, the expelling of the Myanmar Ambassador in London for his support to Suu Kyi created a difficult situation for the U.K. government. The invitation of general Min Aung Hlaing in the ASEAN’s special summit in Jakarta was also a critical choice for ASEAN states to decide whether they would recognize NUG or Tatmadaw.

The move is likely to harden the country’s battle lines since the military coup. The junta has killed 739 people and made 3,370 arrests. There are statements and counter statements between NUG and the junta regime over the formation of unity government. In an apparent response to the NUG’s letter to Interpol accusing general Hlaing, the regime announced that all 24 NUG ministers and two associates have been charged with high treason. It has also declared the NUG an unlawful association. The‘non-interference’ principle of ASEAN, which prohibits involvement in the ‘internal affairs’ of member states, has been violated in the recent move by the ASEAN. It has bolstered the Aung Hlaing government. By inviting Min Aung Hlaing and not NUG representatives to the ASEAN Special Summit, the organization has chosen to intervene and recognize the military regime. This situation has created contradictions and a lack of consensus among the parties who formed the NUG. Diverse comments and different positions of the groups concerned have caused a shadowy situation. For instance, the NUG initially did welcome the five-point consensus on the Myanmar crisis during the ASEAN summit. Contrarily, the protesters have rejected the five-point consensus as it has not mentioned political prisoners and vowed to continue their protest campaign. Later on, the NUG declared that they would not negotiate with the military regime against the people’s will, despite calls from the ASEAN for talks. The NUG rejected a joint junta-ASEAN statement which said, ‘all parties shall exercise utmost restraint’.

In conclusion, the very formation of NUG with its projection of establishing a federal democracy is likely to open opportunities for giving a direction to the ongoing protest movement and creating greater understanding among socio-ethnic groups who have long been cherishing autonomy and ending the cycle of military authoritarianism in essence. If the NUG can build consensus and accelerate trust among the stakeholders of the forces of democracy, there is a prospect for success in the coming days for the transition. The key to victory for the NUG will be to keep civil disobedience going in the face of repression and an economic collapse that has already started and gain support and recognition from the domestic and international arena. Most importantly, the role of the international community is critical. Regionally, ASEAN’s role is vital, but so far, it has not demonstrated any credible action, including the special summit decisions. The NUG remains a fragile unity in a country of the almost permanent reign of the military that makes its mission ever challenging.

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Southeast Asia

Vietnam’s Role in ASEAN 2021 meetings

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The ASEAN leaders met at the organisation's secretariat building in Jakarta [Laily Rachev/Indonesian Presidential Palace/Handout via Reuters]

Taking on from the meetings held under the rubric of ASEAN chairmanship of Vietnam in the year 2020, the country coordinator for Russia in ASEAN, Indonesia conducted the meeting which reaffirmed the strategic partnership between ASEAN and Russia in January 2021. Under the meeting it was decided that the two sides need to address the implications of COVID -19 and accelerating the recovery from economic and social point of view across the region. The basis of meeting was the new ASEAN Russia comprehensive plan of action for the next four years (2021-2025), and discuss its impact related to political and economic security, industry, science and technology, smart cities, health cooperation, and increasing people to people contacts. Vietnam during its chairmanship has been proactive in developing meaningful engagement between ASEAN and Russia as well as between other dialogue partners.

Russia supported ASEAN centrality in organisational architecture, but a need was felt for further engaging Russia in the regional dynamics. Within January 2021 itself issues related to ASEAN Economic Community were discussed through the video conference. Given the fact that the ASEAN community blueprints have been discussed as well as the template for Asian comprehensive recovery framework has been out lined last year, the meeting as expected deliberated on issues related to communication and information technology, E-Commerce, minerals, science and technology, and innovation. Areas which have been highlighted during the ASEAN meetings last year has been related to the 4th industrial revolution and working out plan of action. ASEAN economies have been impacted by limited domestic demand and therefore recovery of the value chains suffered because of the pandemic. There is a need for post pandemic economic support.

ASEAN faced the biggest challenge with the change of government in Myanmar when military junta took over which has been criticised at global level. There have been calls at international level to address this at the regional organisational level and undertake effective measures so that the military junta should cede power to the democratically elected government in Myanmar. This was seen as a challenge to the ASEAN as military government had taken repressive measures with more than 800 people killed since the military coup. ASEAN took cognizance of the fact that the changes in Myanmar would be detrimental to its cohesive and centrality as well as it would challenge the authority that the ASEAN has in terms of a regional organization. It issued a statement seeking peace and dialogue among parties.  In February 2021a meeting was held related to minerals exploitation and developing ASEAN minerals cooperation action plan and its effective implementation. It has been felt that with the ongoing 4th industrial revolution in ASEAN, the demand for critical minerals would rise exponentially. The meeting also commissioned a study which is expected to submit its report by the end of this year.

In the March 2021 ASEAN socio- cultural committee has expressed strong support to Brunei’s chairmanship which espouses for better care, effective preparations, and prosperity in the region. Taking note of the earlier decisions which have been taken during the ASEAN 2020 meetings, the new chair highlighted various proposals which include developing regional responses to emergencies and disasters, youth academy programme, establishing the ASEAN climate change centre, and developing gender understanding among the people of the region. By the end of March, ASEAN India meeting was also held through the video conference in which it was buttressed that there is a need for effective implementation of the new plan of action for 2021- 2025. Stress was laid about the execution of ASEAN-India Fund, ASEAN- India Green Fund and a need was felt to proactively implement all these programmes under the ASEAN India project management. India has contributed USD 1 million to the COVID 19 fund which was appreciated, and views were shared regarding cooperation in medicine, developing vaccines, and cheap pharmaceutical products.

Under the chairmanship of Vietnam last year, it was suggested that ASEAN should prepare for the 4th industrial revolution in a more cohesive way. It was expressed that with the coming of digital economy and new innovations there is a need for comprehensive consolidated strategy which should prepare the region towards the 4th industrial revolution. It suggested that to achieve such a manufacturing revolution there is need for a better regulatory environment, global competitive standards, developing skills and capacity at the same time. The consultative meetings which were held in the last week of April, accepted that there is need for collaborative frameworks, creating the ecosystem which is required for achieving such a goal.

In early May ASEAN discussed issues related toCOVID-19 impact, transformation of global value chains and how the organization should accept the post recovery phenomenon for the long term. The workshop also addressed the hindrances about global value chain and what exactly are the opportunities which will emerge in the post pandemic recovery. It was suggested that there is need for developing critical infrastructure, addressing gaps in connectivity, and seriously undertaking measures for human resource development. What is surprising this year is the fact that ASEAN failed to raise issues related to the South China Sea very vociferously and how China has been asserting its maritime claims in the region. Even though there have been constrained statements in this regard.

Vietnam, on its part, has been proactively engaging ASEAN dialogue partners -Japan, India, Russia and the US in developing long term strategic partnership, and the new Vietnamese foreign minister updated the developments in South China Sea. ASEAN as an organization has been engaging the new partners such as Chile and Cuba. Vietnam has also been drawing attention to the activities of numerous Chinese vessels in Ba Dau(Whitsun reef ) and it was stated by the spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Vietnam that the activities of the Chinese vessels violate Vietnam sovereignty and the provisions of the UNCLOS as it goes against the spirit of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea(DOC). At the international level during the press conference which was conducted in April 2021 on the issue of South China Sea, Vietnam foreign office clearly remarked that all countries should maintain peace and stability as well as cooperation in the South China Sea and must comply with the international law.

All the discussions which happen this year were a carryover from the discussions which were held in November 2020, and it means that the issue related to politico-security and socio-cultural communities would gain more momentum in coming years. The ASEAN meetings in 2020 has laid out the template and suggested new ideas which would bring the ASEAN economies together and develop blueprint for E-commerce, digital economy, digital connectivity, promoting finance, trade and investment in the region. The issues and the engagement with dialogue partners is expected to start in May 2021 and Brunei will have to undertake effective measures so that the momentum of ASEAN discussions is maintained.

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Southeast Asia

Is Quad 2.0 transforming into a Pentad?

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The reinvigoration of Quad Security Dialogue as Quad 2.0 including US, Japan, and Australia along with India during the 12th East Asia Summit in November 2017 has been appreciated and acknowledged by several countries including Germany, France, and Britain. It has been expressed from these countries that such a concert of the major democracies would provide peace, security and help in maintaining order and harmony in the region. Quad 2.0 has been gaining strength with the Foreign ministers meeting in February 2021 followed with Summit level meeting (online) in March 2021 between the leaders of the four countries -India, US, Japan, and Australia.

In 2017, during the India-France Strategic Dialogue, the French senior officials have hinted that they would like to explore possibility regarding collaboration with the Quad members about joining the initiative. The French side has clearly mentioned that given the strength and the objective of the Quad, France would like to join the initiative with the common consensus of the other four partners.

Given the fact that India is averse to any idea of an Asian NATO, therefore France, India and Australia have created a new minilateral which would develop security structures and promote maritime cooperation in the Indian Ocean region. In September 2020 during the foreign Secretary level dialogue between three countries issues such as Maritime Security, Blue Economy, Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR), and Protection of Marine Global Commons were discussed. The maritime global commons and the blue economy are the two things along with maritime security which allude to the fact that France wants Quad by its side to protect its resources. Deliberating on the objectives and agenda of the Quad, France recently concluded joint exercise with the Quad members in April 2021. The exercises were conducted in the eastern Indian Ocean and were held for three days.

 India has been operating Rafale fighter jets (14 are now in service with Indian air force) and plans to procure two squadrons (about 36) of these jets while the three Scorpene submarines have already been commissioned with the Indian navy. This structural defence cooperation between India and France has also been seen in the context of India’s’ entry into the Indian Ocean Commission (an intergovernmental group of island nations- Madagascar, Comoros, Reunion islands, Mauritius, and Seychelles, dealing with maritime governance) as an observer, and India and France maritime surveillance sorties from Reunion islands from Reunion Islands. India benefits from France entry into the Quad as it would enhance extensive naval presence and add more friendly ports into the Quad network. France has expressed concerns related to China’s search for marine resources and seabed minerals near its Indian Ocean territories.

France has been looking into an agreement with Quad members for regular joint exercises and entering into a logistics supply agreement that India has signed with US and both Japan and Australia already have the Logistics Support Agreement (LSA).India and France have signed reciprocal logistics support which is not comprehensive but compliments the requirements from both sides. During the visit of the French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian to India in November 2017, the French Minister welcomed the “a free, open, prosperous and inclusive” Indo-Pacific and sated that it would servelong-term global interests but added that this concert of democracies should be open and inclusive citing that such an initiative should welcome other democracies.

Following the visit of the French Minister, it has been explored that given few Francophone countries in Eastern Africa, the logistics and other related support can be procured from the willing countries. India has set up a grid of coastal surveillance radars in Mauritius, Sri Lanka, Seychelles, and Madagascar. France has military assets in Mayotte, besides military bases in UAE and Djibouti, and it has proposed a wide network of radars which can be integrated with other coastal surveillance radars so that not only white shipping, but rogue ships can also be monitored.

France has expressed interest in developing synergies and cooperative structure which should assimilate itself with the larger objectives of the Quad and is looking for maintaining peace and security as well as protecting the marine resources in the Indian Ocean as China has also been exploring for seabed resources near the Madagascar region. The islands that are of interest and can benefit from the Pentad (with France as new entrant) as this would provide security to its islands namely Reunion, Mayotte, French Southern and Antarctic Lands which includes Île Amsterdam, Crozet Islands, Kerguelen Islands, Île Saint-Paul and other scattered Islands in the Indian Ocean, Bassas da India, Europa Island, Banc du Geyser, and Glorioso Islands, largely uninhabited islands.

Few of these islands can support military structures and Quad countries can use its facilities in and around the Indian Ocean as well as certain islands in the Pacific Ocean. In such a context, France has proposed in the past for holding bilateral and trilateral (with Australia and India) naval and coast guard exercises. The increasing bon homie between Quad members and France serves three basic purposes. Firstly, it involves the French navy in the Indian Ocean and helps in monitoring western Indian Ocean. Secondly, the number of island territories that France had both in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific provides unique coverage and support systems. Thirdly, the trilateral between Australia, India, and France (India and Australia are two Quad members) shows that even though it is not very profoundly expressed but the blueprint is already created for including France to make it a Pentad.

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