Judging by social media reactions from Singapore, the French defense minister Florence Parly’s speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue the past weekend hit all the right notes: trenchant, humorous, and combative in her realism-shaped defense of the rules-based order. But Parly, as she noted in the beginning of her speech, didn’t come to Singapore alone. The French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, complete with a strike group, was docked in the Changi Naval Base during the course of the weekend dialogue, adding symbolism to a substantial speech. But equally notably, her ministry released the latest iteration of its Asia-Pacific security policy in the run-up to the speech, on May 24. Renaming it as “France and Security in the Indo-Pacific” – the document is a new edition of the 2016 “France and Security in the Asia-Pacific” – it accentuates the importance of the Indian Ocean, and therefore of India, for the Élysée Palace.
This French vigueur will surely be welcome in New Delhi, coming as it does at a time when several pressures on the U.S.-India relationship threaten to undo gains of the last two decades. As New Delhi’ search for like-minded security partners (as a diversification strategy in the best reading, and insurance policy in the worst) acquire urgency, France has emerged as a natural choice in the recent years. Both countries share very similar worldviews, crucially an abiding commitment to strategic autonomy. France was the only western country to publicly support the 1998 Indian nuclear tests. Fighter jets bought from Paris form a crucial part of the Indian nuclear air vector. Most recently, France became the second country, after the United States, to sign a military logistics support agreement with India, in March last year. Under this agreement, the Indian navy will have access to French bases across the Indian Ocean including one in Djibouti.
The new French Indo-Pacific strategy advances three key threats to be met by Paris, beyond dealing with North Korean belligerence: transnational terrorism, Chinese challenges to the multilateral order in the region, as well as climate change. These three points of departure stand to shape the future of India-France security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.
At a fundamental level, France and India share the same geographical definition of the Indo-Pacific. In Paris’s conception of that maritime space, the entire Indian Ocean is part of the Indo-Pacific, unlike Washington’s which envisions the Indo-Pacific theatre ending at India’s western shores. In a co-authored article last year, I had argued that “[w]hether India fully signs on to the United States’ conception of the Indo-Pacific will depend on whether counterterrorism […] be brought to its regional agenda,” which, in turn, would depend on the U.S. embracing land and sea to the west of the country as a part of that theatre.
The 2019 French strategy does exactly that. While driven largely by its domestic experience with the Islamic State, and its consequent robust engagement against that group in the Middle East and North Africa, France’s position on Islamist terrorism as a significant regional issue will be welcomed here in New Delhi, especially by the newly re-elected Narendra Modi government. Contrast Paris’s incorporation of terrorism in its Indo-Pacific threat perception with Washington’s which wants to frame its own Indo-Pacific strategy primarily in terms of great-power competition – and away from its global counterterror efforts (though the strategy does have a perfunctory line on “multiple terrorist organizations” operating “throughout the region” as part of regional transnational challenges.)
At a practical level, as the suicide bombings in Sri Lanka in April so strikingly demonstrated, Islamist terrorism stands to affect Indian Ocean littorals as much as continental South or West Asia. Beyond Sri Lanka, ISIS-inspired radicalization in the Maldives continue to be a source of serious concern to regional stakeholders. India and France are well-placed, as well as in terms of location, significant assets and experience, to play a leading role in countering this persistent challenge.
It is however in the realm of the second challenge, as described in the French strategy document, that India-France security cooperation can have the most decisive effect in the region.
It is fair to say that one of the reasons why Beijing thinks that fiat accomplis throughout the South China Sea buttressed by a robust denial strategy is a winning formula is because mechanisms to deter such actions – by the United States or others – have been hard to come by. While freedom-of-navigation operations have a large symbolic value, there is a real risk that at some point China will take them as granted – and ignore them after issuing pro forma warnings. It is, therefore, an imperative that regional leaders seek newer strategies of dissuasion and deterrence.
Jointly developing sea-denial complexes of their own could be a key part of them. Recall that between French presence in the Southern Indian Ocean (one of the French military’s three permanent areas of responsibility) as well as the Indian navy’s strategy that takes the western Indian Ocean as its primary area of responsibility, both are uniquely placed to interdict Chinese sea lines of communication (SLOCs) in a kinetic scenario or otherwise monitor PLA navy patrolling along them.
A recent article has proposed linking the French La Réunion island in the western Indian Ocean to the Indian Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the eastern Indian Ocean through the concept of ‘sister islands’ – similar to the notion of “sister cities.” One should, to add teeth to this notion, add that both can be developed in a coordinated fashion as hubs for anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) complexes. (In this context, it is notable that in March the Indian Army tested a supersonic missile from one of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, indicating an incipient denial strategy around them.)
Coupled with robust patrolling operations by others (most notably, the United States) in the South China Sea, the ability to hold Chinese SLOCs at risk at multiple points throughout the Indian Ocean stand to significantly modify Beijing’s behavior in that it raises the costs of conflict arising from the former significantly – and therefore acts as a deterrent. Significant Indian, French and/or other actors’ investment in A2/AD capabilities may also help curb Beijing’s newfound enthusiasm for power projection.
Admittedly, these are hard-edged proposals, which must be complemented by softer ‘sells’ to smaller states in the region. This brings me to the utility of the third element in the French regional threat perception: climate change. As the 2019 French Indo-Pacific strategy notes, unmitigated climate change induces power asymmetry in the region in that adversely affected countries will see their economic weight decrease relative to their more prepared counterparts. This, in turn, could pave the way for China to increase its influence among the vulnerable.
During prime minister Modi’s first term, India emerged as key player both in the diplomatic cut-and-thrust leading to the 2015 Paris Agreement as well as a leading ‘solution provider’ by starting the International Solar Alliance – a grouping of solar-energy rich countries lying between the Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn. With the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris accord, the onus will be on New Delhi and Paris to devise climate-change related solutions for smaller Indian Ocean littorals in collaboration with other like-minded partners. Both capitals will be well advised to see the significant geostrategic returns behind this soft gambit.