The Indian Ocean is a vital element of India’s trade and foreign policy. In addition to the importance attached by India by way of her location at the head of the ocean, the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) also underpins India’s Act East policy that envisions New Delhi’s closer engagement with Southeast Asian nations. Through concerted effort over the last two decades, India now plays an important economic and security role in the ASEAN and related forums, positioning itself as a vital actor in the region. However, India’s policy in the IOR suffers from one serious deficiency. New Delhi has for long lacked a reliable partner to develop her own interests. The Joint Strategic Vision for Cooperation recently concluded with France promises to change that, broadly committing to deeper information sharing and naval exchanges between the two countries in the IOR.
On the face of it, the agreement is a logical extension of long-standing Indo-French defence cooperation, evidenced by the sale of Scorpene submarines to India, and the deal over Rafale multirole fighter aircrafts. However, it is also a statement of intent by the two powers wishing to assert themselves in the region. About a fifth of France’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) lies in the IOR, through its overseas territories of Réunion and Mayotte, and Paris can play an influential role in the region. The promise and perils carried by the Vision to both sides run far below the surface, and are considered here.
Given the emergence of China and India as economic powers and the growing focus on Eurasia at large, the Indian Ocean has become a critical geopolitical waterway. The US Energy Information Administration estimates that 39 million barrels of oil move through the Indian Ocean every day, risking the threats of maritime terrorism and geopolitical uncertainties at chokepoints such as the Straits of Hormuz and the Straits of Malacca. In this context, the lack of a coherent pan-IOR security architecture represents a key concern for France. The failure of security initiatives such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) to properly extend to the western reaches of the Indian Ocean leaves France without robust partners to implement security mechanisms in the region.
In this regard, France’s support to India’s entry in the IOC (Indian Ocean Commission) as an observer is an attempt to gain this partner of comparable standing. Paris would also benefit from India’s close relations with fellow IOC members Madagascar and Seychelles, while the sizable chunk of Indian-origin people in La Réunion opens up further possibilities for Indo-French cultural cooperation. Cooperation with India would also permit France to establish links with the ARF (ASEAN Regional Forum), paving the way towards a pan-IOR security mechanism.
India’s cooperation with the IOC could also affect Iran’s Indian Ocean policy. Iran has historically valued its proximity to the Straits of Hormuz, and securing its cooperation would allow countries in the Western IOR to better focus on external threats such as piracy and armed robbery. Iran’s absence from the IOC is thus a notable hindrance to a coherent security policy in the region, with trust between Iran and France being further strained by the recent American withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA). The entry of India could help assuage Iranian misgivings about the IOC, and help gain cooperation in the long-term.
On the Indo-Pacific front, France mostly desires involvement due to unease over China’s increasing assertiveness in the region. France has recently sailed through the South China Sea to uphold the freedom of navigation, while vocally opposing China’s construction of artificial islands. Skepticism of China’s intentions also pervades France’s view of the Belt and Road initiative, with President Emmanuel Macron recently declaring that the BRI ‘cannot be one-way’. To this end, the commitment in the Vision towards increasing exchange of information, as well as the possibility of establishing trilateral partnerships, allows Paris to monitor events in the Indo-Pacific more closely, further allowing France and India to address their mutual unease of China more coherently.
Therefore, by adding an Indo-Pacific presence to its western presence, France is making a credible attempt to slowly link the western and eastern theatres. As the next section observes, India’s motivations are also motivated by similar concerns.
To better understand India’s takeaway from the Vision, it is imperative to understand the geopolitical dilemma New Delhi presently finds itself in. Even as India objects to the BRI because of long-standing disputes, neighbours such as Bangladesh and Sri Lanka run the risk of becoming increasingly beholden to China. Beijing’s recent leasing of the Hambantota port gives China a critical foothold in the IOR, while similar fears have been expressed of China’s developmental activities at the port in Chittagong.
Enter France. Both New Delhi and Paris remain suspicious of America’s unlilateralism and hegemonistic behaviour. France also shares India’s commitment to safeguarding human rights and universal values, and thus places itself as a capable partner to help India’s concerns be noticed. In this respect, the addition of a regional dynamic to Indo-French relations is favourable to New Delhi.
Militarily, the commitment to deepen the Varuna naval exercises and enhance interoperability between the two navies represents a major positive for India. Interoperability reaffirms French commitment to supplying equipment to the Indian navy, and establishes India’s status as France’s central partner in the IOR. The same was reaffirmed by the French Ambassador to India, who noted that the Rafale deal amounted to a long-term commitment, and underlined an expected six Scorpenes for India by 2022.
In addition, the commitment to co-develop a maritime surveillance system represents a practical and promising measure towards enhancing security in the Indian Ocean. It can help position India as a security leader in the region, while giving France indirect participation in the region’s security architecture. India’s decision to cooperate with France in the Indian Ocean thus meets critical security needs of New Delhi, while indirectly affirming the need of a coherent pan-IOR security architecture. The final section outlines a few key concerns around the Vision.
Despite the tangible and intangible benefits this Vision promises to both sides, New Delhi and Paris must be mindful of two key concerns which may arise in the aftermath of Indo-French cooperation in the region.
The first concern addresses the degree of cooperation France can actually offer. For all of Macron’s vocal criticism of the BRI, Chinese outlets such as Xinhua and Global Times note a general sentiment of interest within France and the EU of the possibilities offered by the initiative. While Sino-French cooperation is unlikely to extend to the IOR, such considerations may limit the extent to which Paris can voice Indian concerns or interests.
More broadly, the fact that two allies unenthused by Chinese rhetoric have entered into a logistical exchange agreement in the Indo-Pacific may worry China, according to French frigate captain Jeremy Bachelier<1>. Noting close French cooperation with Japan on naval matters, Bachelier outlines that French presence in the Indo-Pacific could allow India, France, Japan and the US to work together. To this extent, Chinese policymakers fear an attempt to encircle China in the Indo-Pacific, fears which may be magnified by New Delhi and Paris’ vocal skepticism of Chinese actions. Thus, the Indo-French agreement may magnify Chinese misgivings. France and India would do well to pursue their aims with care, balancing their fears of a hegemonic China, without alienating Beijing in the process.
<1> French original, see page 5
The author is a Research Intern at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi
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