The signing of a Strategic Partnership in 1998 between France and India under President Jacques Chirac was the first step in a partnership that has grown to encompass multisectoral cooperation, across nuclear, space, defence, cyber security, intelligence-sharing and counter-terrorism initiatives.
In December 2019, Vice Admiral Didier Malterre, Joint Commander of the French forces deployed in the Indian Ocean announced that France would soon be executing Joint Patrols in the Indian Ocean, centred on the southern and north-western Indian Ocean and the French territory of La Reunion, with India. Malterre, who is also the Chief of French Joint Forces stationed in the UAE, cited a “clear strategic and political objective of France in the region.”
This development represents a divergence from the Indian policy of only executing Coordinated Patrols (CORPAT) with its allies — a policy that has persisted in the face of offers from longstanding partner nations like the US — and is an indication of the deepening strategic partnership between France and India in the Indian Ocean Region. This move springs from a series of agreements, joint statements, and MoUs between the two countries, starting with the release of the Joint Strategic Vision of India-France Cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region, launched by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and French President Macron during the latter’s visit to India in March 2018. The meeting was preceded by the formal handover of the first of the 36 Rafale aircraft purchased by India.
The signing of a Strategic Partnership in 1998 between France and India under President Jacques Chirac was the first step in a partnership that has grown to encompass multisectoral cooperation, across nuclear, space, defence, cyber security, intelligence-sharing and counter-terrorism initiatives. According to data from the Embassy of India in Paris, in the period April 2018 to March 2019, India-France bilateral trade stood at $11.89 billion (+4.15 %) as compared to the corresponding period the previous financial year. India’s exports to France were valued at $5.23 billion, up 6.78 %. Meanwhile, French exports to India increased by 2.17 % during the same period to $6.66 billion. Indo-French sales in defence rack up huge numbers, with the Rafale deal costing around €7.87 billion, and the sale for the ‘Project 75’ (P-75) to build six Scorpene submarines costing around €3 billion.
The furthering of the Indo-French strategic dynamic is also evident in the institution of the ministerial-level Annual Defence Dialogue in 2018 under French Minister of Armed Forces Florence Parly and former Minister of Defence Nirmala Sitharaman. The second edition of this dialogue was concluded between Parly and Rajnath Singh in October 2019. Macron’s 2018 visit also included the signing of a MoU on reciprocal logistics support between the two countries’ respective armed forces; France being one of only four confirmed countries to partner with India for the same. Bilateral military exercises between the three services, beginning with the navies in 2001, followed by the air forces in 2004, and the armies in 2011 — have now became a regular feature.
The decision to launch joint patrols in the Indian Ocean and the articulation of a clear strategy by the French for the same comes out of the recognition of the increasing centrality of the Indo-Pacific to global geopolitics. The French interest in the Indo-Pacific is not new. Mentions of the rising profile of the Indo-Pacific have appeared in the French White Paper on Defence and National Security since the beginning of the 21st century. Furthermore, the desire to “look beyond West Africa to the entire Indian Ocean and East Asia region and to seize opportunities that may emerge in this region” have figured in the French security calculus since 2009. France has thus been looking for opportunities to deepen and consolidate its ties with countries in the Indo-Pacific.
This is largely motivated by France’s stake in the region. The presence of overseas French territories in the form of the islands of La Réunion, Mayotte and French Southern and Antarctic Territories in the Indian Ocean; as well as Clipperton, New Caledonia, French Polynesia and the Wallis and Futuna Islands in the Pacific make stability in the Indo-Pacific Paris’ priority. France has one of the largest Exclusive Economic Zones (henceforth, EEZ) in the world which is over 10 million km2 in area — in sharp contrast to India’s 2.7 million km2 — 90 % of which is located in these two oceans.
At the 2019 Shangri-La dialogue, Florence Parly’s articulation of the new strategy for the Indo-Pacific was underscored by an emphasis on building useful links and joint actions in the name of shared security. Parly reiterated the desire to deepen engagement with ASEAN countries as well as other IORA nations to expand and consolidate France’s alliance system in the Indo-Pacific.
The shifting competition in the Indo-Pacific from ‘bipolar’ to ‘tripolar’ has also inspired France’s policy. While the US and India remain united in their desire to curtail Chinese influence and expansionism, the methods with which they seek to prevent that are beginning to diverge. The increasingly transactional appearance of the Indo-US dynamic necessitates a step backwards for the Indian government, and the increasingly militarised posture of American president Donald Trump runs counter to India’s more economically-driven approach toward ensuring freedom of the seas. Furthermore, rising tensions between the US and Iran have strained the Indo-US dynamic due to growing concerns over the security of the Western seaboard of the Indian Ocean. These factors have led India to diversify its alliance basket in the IOR.
This is where the French can truly capitalise upon their evolving strategic dynamic with India. The deepening of this relationship works to the benefit of both countries. Closer relations with India and increased involvement in the Indian Ocean pave way for greater French engagement with the South and Southeast Asian countries through the ARF (ASEAN Regional Forum). This would help France diversify its existing relations and also give it a greater voice in the Indo-Pacific beyond what their alliance with India and their EEZ necessitates. Getting a direct line and a seat at the table in what is widely regarded as the new centre of the global balance of power, would thus also give France an advantage over other European nations.
On the other hand, India stands to benefit by deepening ties with a partner that shares its ideals of multilateralism, pluralism and a non-military, deterrence-based policy. Furthermore, it gains an ally that shares its interpretation of what constitutes the region, as India includes the Gulf of Aden in the West to Burma and Thailand in the East as the Indian Ocean — a vision shared by the French. A relationship with France is also unburdened of the domestic political pressures that come into play with other bilateral relationships, and French support for India has had bipartisan consensus since the establishment of the Strategic Partnership in 1998. Additionally, the proposed Joint Patrols are also to be executed in the north-western Indian Ocean, which provides additional security for India. Furthermore, the talks for planned cooperation in the Persian Gulf in the event of an emergency also serve to assuage one of India’s key concerns. The Indo-French dynamic also remains largely unaffected by tensions in other nations’ bilateral relationship with France.
France is also uniquely placed to partner with India in matters of geospatial intelligence, as it has played a key role in the establishment of the EU CRIMARIO — The European Union Critical Maritime Routes in the Indian Ocean. This project is managed by Expertise France, a leading public agency in international technical assistance. The IORIS, the Indian Ocean Regional Information Sharing & Incident Management web-platform, initiated under EU CRIMARIO is an information sharing and incident management tool allowing user countries to collaborate on the maritime domain and coordinate operations when incidents at sea occur. This makes France an important member of the Information Fusion Centre set up last year in Gurgaon. It becomes even more significant given the stalled talks for geospatial cooperation with the US through BECA (Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement). This would, therefore, lend greater weight to India’s strategy of SAGAR — Security and Growth for All in the Region.
In the same speech announcing the joint patrols, Malterre also hinted at the signing of an agreement in early 2020 providing for sharing of classified information for better operational cooperation in the region. France must continue to entrench itself into the politics of the Indo-Pacific and India can aid France in this endeavour. In doing so, the possibility of maximising strategic gains for both nations must be cultivated to its fullest, and can be done so jointly.
The author is a research intern at ORF in Mumbai.
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