Late last month, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi traveled to France for the annual bilateral summit which lasted from August 22-23. He was also invited by the French President Emmanuel Macron to the G-7 summit, which occurred from August 25- 26 at Biarritz, a reflection of the growing depth of the partnership between India and France.
The consolidation of this strategic partnership could not have come at a better time for New Delhi. India has just taken a major political gamble by removing the special status of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, a state that is the focus of a long dispute between India and Pakistan. But India and France are also coming closer because of other common interests, and because India is looking for more options when it comes to its international partners.
India’s decision on Kashmir created some diplomatic difficulties, with Pakistan demanding UN Security Council debate and China supporting that demand, putting in question the slowly warming ties between India and China. Russia’s position also raised some concerns in Delhi: Its support for India was lukewarm, with Russia clearly feeling squeezed between China (with which Russia has increasingly become closer) and India (its traditional friend). After Russia climbed on the fence and adopted a somewhat ambiguous stand, India needed to nurture its relationship with other important strategic partners such as France and the United States.
Despite India’s traditional discomfort with being an ally, Modi during his speech at UNESCO in Paris said, “Today in the 21st century, we talk of INFRA. I would like to say that for me it is IN+FRA, which means the alliance between India and France.”
Whether this play of words was important or not, India’s strategic engagements with France has grown by leaps and bounds. Backing India within the UN Security Council was the ultimate demonstration of France’s firm resolve to stand with India. Among the UN Security Council members, France has remained one of the steadiest partners of India in recent decades, a place that used to be reserved for the Soviet Union/ Russia in the past.
By contrast, UK-India ties have always been dodgy, given the old political baggage as well as the influence of the Pakistani diaspora in the UK. The UK’s inability or unwillingness to curb anti-India activities in the UK has always been a sore point in the relations. India’s other partners do not have any clout in forums like the UNSC. For example, though Germany has remained an important trading and even political partner to India, there is very little Berlin can do in platforms like the UNSC. And the less said about groups like the BRICS, the better.
All of this makes France’s strong support for India particularly welcome in New Delhi. France and India already have a fairly multifaceted relationship spanning multiple domains from defense, civil nuclear, and space, to climate change, clean energy, and urbanization. During Macron’s visit to India last year, the two countries signed 14 agreements covering these areas.
Their vision and plan of action for maritime security and outer space stand out as particularly important. With regard to maritime security (with a focus on the Indian Ocean), India and France have reiterated the importance of respecting international law by all states, in maintaining freedom of navigation and overflight, piracy, weapons and human trafficking, illegal fishing and smuggling. There can be little doubt who they are referring to.
The two countries also have a vision to use outer space assets in a proactive manner in developing maritime domain awareness in addition to focusing on areas of cooperation including high resolution earth observation, space domain and situational awareness, satellite navigation, space transportation, and human exploration of space. Strengthened space situational awareness and high-resolution earth observation imagery will have a significant impact in their ability to monitor the Indian Ocean maritime space.
In addition, the two countries also have a Joint Action Plan on Indian Ocean. Their joint plan envisages greater use of space assets to gain a more useful appreciation of the maritime environment that the two countries operate in and the two have pledged to strengthen information sharing on the emerging maritime dynamics in the Indian Ocean.
Indian Ocean dynamics have undergone major shifts since the Modi Government came into office in 2014. Making a significant departure from the erstwhile policy of opposing for extra-regional powers in the Indian Ocean, Modi asserted that “Indian Ocean Region is at the top of our policy priorities” and New Delhi has also made it clear that it will be working with all the friends in the region, especially those of the maritime neighbors and island states. Modi added that “collective action and cooperation will best advance peace and security in our maritime region,” a space that India extends to partners like France and the United States in ensuring a stable maritime order while strengthening their ability to respond to natural disasters.
France, of course, also remains a vital source of arms supply to India. The French Rafale fighter won India’s Medium Multi-role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) competition. Though India bought only about three dozen Rafale’s instead of the 126 originally envisaged, there are continuing rumors that India will buy additional ones. India is also a customer for the Scorpene submarines and a host of other items.
Clearly, the roiling of India’s strategic partnerships has increased France’s importance to New Delhi. France is likely to remain important to New Delhi for some time to come, irrespective of the chatter about the actual label that best applies to the growing ties between the two countries.