The France-India Dalliance: Operationalizing Strategic Autonomy in the Indian Ocean

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The France-India Dalliance: Operationalizing Strategic Autonomy in the Indian Ocean

France and India have the tools and legitimacy to become the main drivers of a novel cooperative and inclusive security architecture in the Indian Ocean.

The France-India Dalliance: Operationalizing Strategic Autonomy in the Indian Ocean

French President Emmanuel Macron, left, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with his arm outstretched, ride an open vehicle together during a road show in Jaipur, Rajasthan, India, Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024.

Credit: AP Photo/ Deepak Sharma

French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to New Delhi on January 26, 2024, as guest of honor at India’s Republic Day – six months after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi spent Bastille Day, July 14, in Paris – is a new opportunity for the two countries to reaffirm the robustness of the strategic partnership between France and India.

The proximity between the two countries has been based to a large extent on a shared preference for a multipolar international order, in which France and India would strive to shape rather than passively accept global transformations. It is in this context that Macron’s regular emphasis that France is “allied, but not aligned” echoes the concept of “multi-alignment” regularly promoted by India. Historically, Paris and New Delhi have often emphasized their comparable quests for strategic autonomy, which is generally defined as the ability to make decisions independently of external pressures. This synergy has been a driving force for strategic convergence and cooperation. 

However, two important bilateral visits in less than six months and a growing uncertain geopolitical context also raise expectations for concrete strategic collaboration on the key security challenges of the day. One area of strong operational cooperation that deserves more public attention and could be the next horizon of the France-India partnership is maritime security in the northwestern part of the Indian Ocean. 

For the past decade, the Indo-Pacific has provided a supportive framework for the French-Indian partnership. France has a direct interest in the stability of the Indian Ocean, through its overseas territories in the south of the Indian Ocean and its military bases in the north, in Djibouti and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). This has led to prolific bilateral cooperation, guided by the Joint Strategic Vision for the Indian Ocean, adopted in 2018. Paris and New Delhi have simultaneously been strengthening their cooperation with common partners, through trilateral formats, and notably with the UAE and Australia. In July, the two countries adopted an ambitious 2047 roadmap to mark the occasion of the centenary of the bilateral relationship.

This new bilateral framework seems well suited to deal with the fast-evolving security environment within the Indian Ocean. While the Suez-Malacca maritime corridor remains a critical lifeline for global trade, the ongoing Red Sea crisis has shed light on the volatility of this other crucial seaway of the broader Indo-Pacific. While deploying warships to protect international ships and denouncing Houthi attacks, Paris and New Delhi have refrained from joining the U.S.-led Operation Prosperity Guardian to avoid any further escalation.

Beyond this crisis, the Indian Ocean Region is plagued by a multiplicity of nontraditional security threats including gray zone coercion, high sea criminality, and climate change-induced calamities. These threats have proliferated in an environment where many states lack the means to adequately protect their sovereign waters from intrusive and criminal activities and where regional mechanisms are failing to foster necessary cooperation. 

As aspiring major net security providers in the region, and in light of their growing bilateral coordination, France and India have the tools and legitimacy to become the main drivers of a novel cooperative and inclusive security architecture in the region. Despite the substantial development of bilateral maritime cooperation, the challenges ahead require a much deeper and comprehensive collaboration.

The France-India partnership has made some headways in providing capacity building assistance to third-party states and thereby providing them the sovereign tools necessary to regulate, exploit, and secure their maritime domains. While continuing to synergize their endeavor within preexisting formal regional institutions (the Indian Ocean Rim Association, Indian Ocean Commission, and Indian Ocean Naval Symposium) and informal groupings (trilaterals with UAE and Australia), Paris and New Delhi can provide the groundwork for a new regional security mechanism. An “Indian Ocean Quad” grouping comprised of France, India, Australia, and the UAE would offer a flexible platform for cooperative schemes on hard and soft security matters.

France’s involvement in the northwestern Indian Ocean is backed by a permanent military presence and diplomatic clout, and is also instrumental in spurring European engagement in regional security. In 2022, Paris successfully pushed for the EU to expand the Coordinated Maritime Presence concept to the northwestern Indian Ocean, complementing the anti-piracy ATALANTA operation. France should remain an active backer of the EU’s CRIMARIO program, which aims at providing tools for states in the Indian Ocean to enhance their maritime domain awareness. France should also pursue its efforts in encouraging greater involvement of the EU and its member-states in the Indian Ocean security environment and promote a stronger coordination of EU-India naval operations in the northwestern Indian Ocean.  

The primary security threat to the Indian Ocean states remains climate change, as it exacerbates other perils. Hence, strengthening synergies in human assistance and disaster relief operations, processes and exchanges of know-how would allow a better anticipation. As first responders following the Idai cyclone in Mozambique in 2019 and the Wakashio oil spill off Mauritius in 2020, France and India have a shared responsibility in jointly preparing and anticipating such occurrences.

The India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC) project unveiled on the sidelines of the G-20 summit held in Delhi in September 2023 and the Red Sea crisis have further raised the stakes and challenges for the France-India partnership. The strengthening of the bilateral bond in the context of the Macron visit comes as a signal of sustained and concrete cooperation in the northwestern India Ocean.