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India-France Relations: New Avenues For Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific

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India-France Relations: New Avenues For Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific

The two countries have been trying to avoid depending on the United States for security, while also denouncing China’s belligerent posture.

India-France Relations: New Avenues For Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific

India’s Minister for External Affairs S. Jaishankar meets Emanuel Bonne, Diplomatic Advisor to the President of France Emmanuel Macron, in New Delhi, India, January 12, 2024.

Credit: X/Dr S Jaishankar

In October 2023, India made a formal request to the French government to purchase 26 Rafale Marine aircraft worth U.S. $6 billion for the Indian Navy, which would significantly bolster its capabilities in the Indian Ocean.

While defense trade remains a vital element, India and France are increasingly broadening the scope of their relationship to include shared geopolitical objectives in the Indo-Pacific. As the regional security environment becomes more unpredictable, closer cooperation with island states is emerging as the thrust of this partnership.

As great power rivalry continues to play out in the maritime theater, diplomacy with littoral states assumes paramount significance for building enduring relationships. The Indo-French partnership aims to do just that, complementing diplomatic partnerships like the Quad and AUKUS.

China’s growing footprint in the Indo-Pacific calls for transparent multilateralism to level insecurity, as China’s posture is increasingly perceived as coercive. More concrete cooperation between Indo-Pacific middle powers like India and France can present a reliable engagement vertical for island-states, mainly in areas of development, security, and resilience to climate change, augmenting the diplomacy of like-minded partners in the region.

Defense Relationship and Maritime Security

The joint statement released after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to France on July 14 highlights a robust degree of bilateral defense cooperation, as the two countries seek to deepen industrial partnerships in areas like joint combat aircraft engine development. As the second largest defense exporter to India, France can be an important partner for domestic defense manufacturing, technology sharing, and research. The Annual Defense Dialogue in October brought respective defense ministers together in Paris, where they discussed ways to deepen defense industry cooperation. Furthermore, following the success of the submarine construction program P-75 Kalvari, India’s Mazagon Dockyard Ltd and France’s Naval Group signed an agreement to construct three additional Scorpene submarines for the Indian Navy.

The increasing defense cooperation between India and France corresponds to their shared objectives in the Indo-Pacific. While New Delhi’s regional aspirations ensure long-term attention towards maritime issues, France’s Indo-Pacific strategy emphasizes defending territorial sovereignty and access to common maritime areas as foremost objectives. France projects itself as a “balancing power” amidst U.S.-China competition, to safeguard its territories both in the Pacific and Indian oceans. Like New Delhi, the Parisian position on the Indo-Pacific is also “inclusive,” as it seeks multifaceted relationships to maintain a balance of power. Both countries have been trying to avoid depending on the United States for security while also denouncing China’s belligerent posture. France’s involvement in the Indo-Pacific arises out of necessity to preserve a close relationship with the United States, while also acknowledging and acting upon threats presented by Beijing.

Diplomacy with Island States

Several signs show that a key aspect of both India and France’s Indo-Pacific strategies include diplomacy with island nations. The launch of the Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC) in 2014, and Modi’s visit to Port Moresby for the third FIPIC summit in May 2023 highlight India’s sustained interest in the region. President Macron’s recent visits to Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, and the French territories of New Caledonia and French Polynesia also underscore an increase in its diplomatic outreach in the Indo-Pacific. France also actively participates in regional forums on strategic issues, such as the recently concluded South Pacific Defense Ministers’ Meeting, and hosts disaster relief exercises like the biennial Croix Du Sud in New Caledonia, an important outpost of French naval power in the Pacific. Notably, India and France seek increased cooperation with the Pacific islands where climate change is viewed as the most prominent challenge.

India and France have a history of formidable cooperation with the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) island states, particularly in areas of non-traditional security, infrastructure, and disaster relief operations. They also participate in the Indian Ocean Commission and Indian Ocean Rim Association, focusing on sustainable development and maritime security of Indian Ocean states. The leaders of Seychelles, Mauritius, Madagascar, and Comoros met with their Indian and French counterparts at the Reunion Islands in 2019 and discussed economic and development partnerships.

India and France also adopted a strategic vision for the Indian Ocean in 2018, which entailed a reciprocal access agreement for their military facilities and coordinated patrols. Indo-French co-operation allows sufficient capital for the pursuit of scientific research in areas like maritime surveillance and marine cartography, while also presenting island states with more avenues of developmental assistance. The partnership thus enhances maritime security in the region while also aiding development activities.

Possible Limitations

While India and France see eye-to-eye on most strategic issues, it remains important to address any underlying distrust or inaccurate perceptions of the other’s intent. New Delhi has long endorsed anti-colonialism, whereas France is a former colonial power. Their collective approach to the people of island nations should be cognizant of these sensitivities, and should prioritize a shared strategic vision with local leaders. The IOR can be a theater for collaboration, but also for competing influence. Therefore, frequent and transparent bilateral dialogue between India and France, as well as at the Track 1.5 and Track 2 levels, can help eliminate any apprehensions that may exist between the two countries.

The new minilaterals emerging in the Indo-Pacific have caused some skepticism between close partners, such as when France and Australia’s relationship soured after the AUKUS announcement. These misunderstandings are eventually resolved given strategic alignment but can be avoided altogether through consistent dialogue. Fortunately, India and France’s strong relationship with the United States, Australia, and Japan will ensure that regional powers agree on common objectives and value-driven engagement with island states.

Looking Ahead: Avenues for Non-traditional Security Cooperation

More structured cooperation with island states for training and capacity building can help alleviate non-traditional security concerns. These can include French training in climate security and territorial maritime governance, and India’s training in disaster management (HADR). An increase in climate change resilience programs, like France’s Kiwa Initiative in the Pacific, and people-to-people exchanges can ensure a holistic engagement with the island nations. Under the Indo-Pacific Roadmap, India and France have outlined plans for co-developing sustainable maritime resources and infrastructure for information sharing. The Indo-Pacific Triangular Cooperation Fund, an Indo-French initiative for supporting “climate and SDG-focused innovations and start-ups” from third countries, could also be useful in financing climate change mitigation projects.

India and France, both large defense spenders and nuclear powers, have emphasized their “strategic autonomy,” which allows them to engage with Washington-led security networks and simultaneously build their own lattice of strategic relationships in the Indo-Pacific, such as with island states. India has made an effort to sustain the momentum of their bilateral relationship by inviting President Macron to be the chief guest for India’s 75th Republic Day celebrations.

The continued perception of China’s assertiveness as a threat has raised concerns about regional stability and is indicative of Beijing’s limited diplomatic effort in the neighborhood. A structured and more congruent India-France partnership will consolidate the Indo-Pacific security architecture. Furthermore, the partnership’s collective approach in bringing defense and development together can also lessen strategic vulnerabilities for countries in the region such as the Indo-Pacific island states.

This piece originally appeared on South Asian Voices and has been republished with permission.