Despite growing fears of the global coronavirus pandemic, India and France held a joint exercise in the Indian Ocean. While dealing with this and other challenges, both countries understand that they share broader strategic interests including the implications China’s rise in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.
In a first, the two navies conducted joint patrols from Reunion Island, the French naval base in the Indian Ocean. The Commander of the Indian Navy P-8I, which was part of the joint patrols, is reported to have said that that such joint security operations “make it possible to maintain the security of international maritime routes for trade and communications.”
These engagements are not without significance. India has so far generally conducted Coordinated Patrols (CORPAT) only with its maritime neighbors. Currently, the Indian Navy has Joint Exclusive Economic Zone surveillance exercises with the Maldives, Seychelles and Mauritius and CORPAT series are undertaken with the navies of Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand and Indonesia. The United States had earlier made an offer to India to carry out CORPAT but India rejected it.
But India’s own comfort level in engaging in CORPAT-like exercises is growing because New Delhi seems to be realizing that it is in India’s own interests to expand the number of countries with which its does such engagements. Thus, India in the last five years has shown greater inclination to engage with like-minded countries to expand its presence in the Indian Ocean. The current engagement is also a clear acknowledgement of the growing strategic importance of the areas between the East African coastline and the Malacca Straits.
Speaking to an Indian newspaper on the latest India-France interactions more specifically, Indian defense ministry sources said that while both India and France are on the same page when it comes to the challenges and concerns in the region, both also have capacity limitations. These constraints have in fact become an imperative for the two to join hands and undertake more coordinated and joint naval maneuvers. The sources were careful to add that these “patrols will be periodical” and that “there is no set pattern” to these engagements. Nevertheless, it remains an important indicator of India’s greater willingness for expanding its own footprint in the region as also for strengthening capacity-building by partnering with navies of like-minded nations.
India and France discussed CORPAT-like engagements in November 2019 during the visit of the French Navy Chief Admiral Christophe Prazuck. He had then emphasized the importance of “organizing joint patrols with the Indian Navy” and stated that the two sides are working on “the very precise objectives” of such maneuvers. He added that “if a zone [Exclusive Economic Zones] is not controlled, then it is bound to be pillaged, and if it is pillaged, then it is bound to be occupied. And if it is occupied, it will be contested.” As for the areas of engagements, he said it could be “North Western Indian Ocean or Southern Indian Ocean around the islands that are part of France.” Earlier in October 2019, the French President Emmanuel Macron had mentioned that a patrol aircraft from the Indian Navy will be deployed at Le Reunion to participate in surveillance missions in the first quarter of 2020.
Speaking about the growing Chinese presence in western Indian Ocean and the threat it poses, Admiral Prazuk noted that before piracy issues flared up in Somalia in 2008, there were no Chinese vessels. But clearly piracy has become an excuse for China to send its ships and they are still sending them even though the threat from piracy has diminished significantly. In addition to ships, China has also been sending Nuclear Attack submarines (SSNs) into the western Indian Ocean. As the Admiral noted, SSNs are “not the most effective tool to fight against pirates.”
The closer strategic engagement between the different arms of the governments including the militaries is a sign of the comfort and confidence that exist between India and France. This comfort level is demonstrated by the comments of an Indian official, who said that “France is a safe country for us, there will be no concerns in conducting joint patrols with them.” Thus, it is no surprise that France became the first country to have a Liaison Officer at the Indian Navy’s Information Fusion Centre (IFC-IOR).
France is one of the oldest, most trusted of India’s partners, possibly second only to Russia. But today with Russia having established an uncomfortably close relationship with China, India’s reliance on France has become that much greater. Even though India has traditionally remained uneasy with terms like alliance, Modi used the term to describe the relations with France at his speech at UNESCO in Paris, where he 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.”
This is a significant recognition of how much closer New Delhi and Paris have become even in the last few years. Some in the Indian strategic community discounted this as word play, but the reality is that the two countries’ strategic engagements have expanded and deepened in significant ways. The manner in which France backed India at the UN Security Council discussion on Jammu and Kashmir in 2019 is the latest indication of France’s strategic commitment to India. Russia used to be that reliable partner in the UN Security Council in the past but increasingly that spot is occupied by France (and of course, the United States).
While India and France have collaboration across a number of important sectors such as space, nuclear and defense, the particular focus on Indian Ocean and maritime security is significant. This is in line with India’s own changed vision for the Indian Ocean. In 2014, Prime Minister Modi made a pitch to India’s friends and strategic partners, saying “collective action and cooperation will best advance peace and security in our maritime region,” wherein India looks to key partners such as France and the United States in guaranteeing a stable maritime order in the Indian Ocean. This is a big shift from India’s earlier approach of criticizing the presence of any extra-regional powers in the Indian Ocean.
The recent CORPAT between Indian and French navies in Reunion Island became possible only because India and France signed an agreement in 2018 that would give reciprocal access to each other’s military facilities. This is similar to the logistics agreement, LEMOA, that India signed with the US. The agreement with France has expanded the presence and the type of naval operations that the Indian Navy is able to undertake in the western Indian Ocean. France has military facilities in the island of La Réunion, Mayotte, and the French Southern and Atlantic Lands. India’s pragmatic approach to Indian Ocean will go a long way in strengthening its operational maneuverability and creating more strategic options as it prepares to address a more muscular Chinese presence in the maritime spaces in India’s vicinity.