By Sher Bano*
Quite recently, on 30th March 2021 two ships of the French Navy ‘assault helicopter carrier-Tonnerre’ and ‘frigate Surcouf’ reached Kochi (a port city on the South-West coast of India) to participate in the three-day joint naval exercise ‘La Pérouse’. Though the exercise was led by France, four other members of the Quad were also among the participants these include; the US, India, Japan, and Australia. It has been insinuated that French ships have arrived in India on a ‘goodwill’ visit with the purpose to further strengthen the military cooperation between the navies of the two countries. For the past few years, maritime cooperation has gradually become a significant aspect of the strategic partnership between India and France. The former wants to further enhance its naval capabilities by building strong security relationships in the ‘Indian Ocean Region’ (IOR) under its long-term aspiration of becoming a ‘blue-water navy’ and dominating the region. In this regard, France has emerged as a crucial partner for India to fulfill its quest to dominate the IOR.
As per the statement given by the French embassy in India; the purpose of these three-day drills was to provide the five like-minded nations with an opportunity to enhance their skills, promote maritime cooperation, and develop closer ties throughout an open and free Indo-Pacific. Moreover, according to an Indian defence and strategic affairs analyst N.C. Bipindra ‘this maritime military exercise conducted between the five nations including the US, Japan, Australia, France, and India is an attempt to practice the naval maneuvers for interoperability among them whenever there is a crisis. It is significant to note that the presence of the US, Japan, and Australia in the Quad does not challenge Pakistan’s interest but the inclusion of India in this alliance poses a severe security threat for Pakistan. This alliance would help India boost its policies of ‘Extended Neighborhood’ and ‘Act East. This along with the Indo-Pacific strategy of the US to use India as a counter against China in the IOR can prove to be detrimental for both China and Pakistan. The US has been assisting and encouraging India to build its supremacy in IOR and South Asia. Hence these naval drills between France and the Quad grouping can be seen as an attempt to further solidify the alliance and also increase India’s significance in the Indo-Pacific region. It also provides India with an opportunity to become a regional power by rising from its middle-power status.
To further analyze, for the past few years, IOR can be seen as a new venue of cooperation between India and France. In the year 2019 French President Emmanuel Macron invited the Indian Prime Minister Modi to a two-day G-7 Summit. During the visit, the two leaders held various meetings to review and assess all the aspects of their bilateral relationship. By the end of the year, a series of announcements made by India and France confirmed that the Indian Ocean is about to become the next venue of cooperation between the two states. In May 2019 after holding the Varuna exercise, the announcement was made by Admiral Christoph Prazcuk (Chief of French Navy) that ships from India and France would undertake ‘joint maritime security patrols’ in the IOR. In March 2020 the patrol took place using ‘P-8’ (Poseidon anti-submarine aircraft). The happening of the first such ‘CORPAT’ (Coordinated Patrols) shows India’s willingness to militarily cooperate with France in the IOR in a manner that was earlier denied by India with any of the western power. Even the joint patrol offer by the US navy was deliberately dismissed by India in 2018.
In July 2020 India received the first 5 out of 36 ‘Rafale fighter jets under a deal of US$ 9.22 billion. The deal itself is a clear signal that two states have become materially closer. The acquisition of Rafale fighter jets is not only significant for Indo-French ties but also an attempt by New Delhi to counter the air capabilities of both China and Pakistan. Though instead of 126 Rafales that were originally envisioned, only 36 were bought by India, it is expected that India would buy more number of these advanced fighter jets soon. India is also acquiring other military hardware from France for instance, the ‘Scorpene submarines’. Hence France has emerged as a major arms supplier for India.
Summarizing it all, the closer ties with France and then the appointment of Indo-Pacific ambassador by the French president Macaron can be seen as India’s attempt to pursue its regional ambitions to counter China. In the same vein, firstly the sale of Rafale jets to India by France and then the latter’s offering support to the former against the backdrop of Ladakh- Galwan crisis of 2020 are notably significant vis-à-vis their strategic partnership. At the same time, for many, it implies a shift in French policy towards China. Hence, an important aspect behind the security partnership between France and India is to counter rising China and increase their influence in the Indian Ocean region. Moreover, the rising Indian influence in the IOR and its increasing cooperation with Quad states would become a grave security concern for Pakistan as well. Hence, at the present, India’s enhanced strategic cooperation with France and Quad states would have long-lasting implications for the broader regional security.
*The writer is working as a Research Affiliate at the Strategic Vision Institute (SVI), a non-partisan think-tank based out of Islamabad, Pakistan.