India and France's shared maritime security and geopolitical interests in the Indo-Pacific encourage the two nations to strengthen their strategic maritime strategy.
Both India and France have evolved as significant strategic actors in the Indian Ocean. India and France have both taken a monumental leap in their strategic partnership recently, in the context of their shared interests in the Indo-Pacific. However, the Indian Ocean has remained at the centre of their strategic engagement, primarily in the domain of maritime security. The significance of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) in shaping the strategic partnership between New Delhi and Paris was visible during the French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to India in 2018, when the heads of state of both the countries welcomed the ‘Joint Strategic Vision of India-France Cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region’ as a roadmap to strengthen their ties. Maritime Security, in particular, gained steam in the evolution of the Indo-French strategic partnership as the two countries articulated their common vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific. At a bilateral level, Exercise Varuna, the flagship naval exercise between the two countries has been at the heart of Indo-French strategic synergy in the Indian Ocean. In 2022, the 20th edition of the bilateral exercise was culminated, broadening its scope of engagement. The focus of this exercise has been on facilitating interoperability, thereby, strengthening naval complementarity between the two. With China’s growing strategic footprint in the Indian Ocean, maritime partnerships through naval exercises like Varuna appear to be well poised for both India and France. Whilst the geographical proximity between India and China; and Beijing’s growing maritime presence in the Indian Ocean, around India is a cause for alarm from New Delhi, France has also increasingly embraced its Indian Ocean identity through its island presence in the region. Increasingly, the Réunion Island has been used as a pivot by France to mark its presence in the Indian Ocean. Despite being characterised as a European power for long, France has continued to articulate its stakes in the IOR2. Whilst for India, Exercise Varuna has been a way to display the intensity of its maritime partnerships in the Indian Ocean, for France, this has been an opportunity to consolidate its Indian Ocean identity by engaging with a resident power of the Indian Ocean.
India, for a long time, has been a key player in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and has been intricately involved in the geopolitical crossroads of the Indo-Pacific.
|French Island Possessions in the Indian Ocean
|1. Réunion Island 2. Mayotte
|French Memberships in Regional Organisations in the Indian Ocean
|1. Indian Ocean Rim Association 2. Indian Ocean Commission 3. Indian Ocean Naval Symposium
|Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)
|1. French EEZ in the Indian Ocean counts for about 10 percent of the total ocean surface. 2. 20 percent of France’s total EEZ falls on the Indian Ocean.
However, even during instances of divergences between Australia and France, as was witnessed in the aftermath of the formulation of AUKUS (Australia, United Kingdom, and the US), nullifying a pre-existing defence deal between France and Australia, ties between India and France did not whither. In fact, displaying their commitment towards their shared interests and vision for the Indo-Pacific, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Macron reiterated the need to find ‘new and innovative ways’ to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific. This appeared as an exhibition of bonhomie between Narendra Modi and Emmanuel Macron. Both India and France have done well to sustain their maritime partnership, specifically by the way of naval engagements. India recently concluded the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium Maritime Exercise (IMEX-22), conducted at the Indian state of Goa in the Arabian Sea. The exercise witnessed participation from 15 out of 25 member nations of the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS). Notably, the exercises were observed by the naval chiefs of India and France. This needs to be seen in light of France’s growing interest in the multilateral platforms in the Indian Ocean. With France’s formal accession to the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) in 2020, France has stepped up its multilateral engagements in the region. In addition to becoming an observer to the IMEX-22, France has also supported the IORA by funding capacity building efforts to coordinate and support its vision for a peaceful and prosperous Indian Ocean. With India being one of the key proponents of the IORA, France’s expansive engagement with the organisation will indeed complement their bilateral efforts to consolidate greater ties in the Indian Ocean. Whilst, historically the defence sector has been at the core of Indo-French ties, increasingly, maritime synergy has come to characterise the bilateral ties between the two, to a great extent. There is no doubt that even though, it is market complementarity in the defence sector has helped in cementing a solid foundation between the two states it is maritime cooperation that appears to be shaping the strategic partnership between the two states. The Indian Ocean has truly emerged as a global centre stage where new maritime partnerships are being forged. In this context, France’s efforts to mould its global and regional outlook, from being just a European player, to a country of the Indian Ocean rim in order to mark its presence in the region, seems to be timely and prompt. In turn, not only has France itself emerged as a leading proponent of the shifting global stage, but has also influence Europe as a whole to focus on the region.
India joined the French flagship naval exercise, La Perouse, for the first time. India joined the cohort with the other three QUAD countries, Australia, Japan, and the US, prompting speculations of a ‘QUAD plus France’ formulation.
What makes the bilateral ties between the two states truly unique is that India’s partnership with France also leverages New Delhi to seek similar such partnerships with other European players. This has to some extent manifested by way of articulations from countries such as the UK, Germany, as well as the European Union recognising the importance of India in constructing the new strategic realities within the Indian Ocean. In light of the growing challenges faced by India in the Indian Ocean and an increasingly volatile neighbourhood, the importance of partnerships and alliances in such a climate of geopolitical dynamism in the region, will go a long way in driving India’s geostrategic ambitions. In this context, it may be said that the way, in which India and France are making efforts to fulfil their strategic interests in the Indian Ocean, both the states are well placed to take their partnership forward in the maritime domain. Additionally, since France commands considerable sway in Europe’s international political dynamics, it can facilitate greater opportunities for India to cement ties with other like-minded European partners in the Indian Ocean asserting itself as a critical anchor in the evolving geopolitical environment in the Indian Ocean and the wider Indo-Pacific. With the re-election of President Macron, it appears unlikely, that there will be any significant hindrance in the pursuance of their shared interests in the Indian Ocean and the wider Indo-Pacific. Therefore, indeed India and France have elevated their ties to a new level with their strategic engagement in the Indian Ocean.
France’s efforts to mould its global and regional outlook, from being just a European player, to a country of the Indian Ocean rim in order to mark its presence in the region, seems to be timely and prompt.
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Sayantan Haldar is presently a Doctoral Candidate at the Department of International Relations South Asian University New Delhi India. His doctoral research looks in Indias ...Read More +