India hails 'game-changer' French jets as China tensions soar

A French-made Rafale fighter being welcomed with a water jet arch at the Indian Air Force base in Ambala on Sept 10, 2020. PHOTO: EPA-EFE/GOVERNMENT OF INDIA

AMBALA, INDIA (AFP) - India's Defence Minister hailed the formal commissioning on Thursday (Sept 10) of the country's first new French Rafale jets as a "strong message" to its adversaries, amid an escalating border row with China.

The first five of a US$9.4 billion (S$13.10 billion) order for 36 Rafale aircraft formally entered service following a ceremony in Ambala in northern India.

"The induction of Rafale is a strong message for the world and especially for those who challenge India's sovereignty," Defence Minister Rajnath Singh tweeted, without mentioning China directly.

"Our country will not take any step to disturb peace anywhere. We expect the same from our neighbours," Mr Singh added.

Earlier this week, shots were fired for the first time in 45 years on the Himalayan border with China, after a medieval-style battle in June that saw 20 Indians killed.

India and China's foreign ministers were due to meet in Moscow later on Thursday in a bid to cool tensions between the world's two most-populous nations.

Since the deadly June 15 clash - which also resulted in an unknown number of Chinese casualties - both sides have sent tens of thousands of extra troops to the mountainous border that has never been demarcated.

Even before relations with China nosedived, India was moving strategically closer to the West, deepening security cooperation with the United States, Japan and Australia in the Asia-Pacific region.

It has also embarked on a US$130 billion modernisation of its armed forces - including ordering attack helicopters from the United States and a missile defence system from Russia.

Mr Manoj Joshi, a defence and foreign policy expert at New Delhi based think-tank Observer Research Foundation, said the new French jets were a "morale booster for the country's defence forces".

But he cautioned: "If you are China, you're not going to take few Rafales seriously. A handful of planes cannot bog down a military power like China."

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