By Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in France recently as part of a three-nation visit to Europe that also included Denmark and Germany. Modi tweeted to say that even though his visit to Paris was short, it was “fruitful.” He also characterized France as “one of India’s strongest partners,” cooperating across a number of strategic sectors including nuclear, space, and defense. French President Emmanuel Macron and Modi discussed a range of bilateral and global issues.
The joint statement issued during Modi’s visit captured the essence of the France-India partnership, one that is rooted on mutual trust, commitment to international law, vision for a “multipolar world shaped reformed and effective multilateralism.” Both leaders also reiterated their commitment to the core principles of the liberal international order including democracy, fundamental freedoms, rule of law and human rights.
As major Indo-Pacific powers, Modi and Macron also noted the importance of their “premium strategic partnership” in order to maintain peace, stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region. The two leaders also noted that they have a shared vision of a free, open and rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific, with a commitment to “international law, respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, freedom of navigation and a region free from coercion, tensions and conflicts.”
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine also was discussed during the Macron-Modi meeting. It is evident from the joint statement that India is still not ready to condemn Russia. Instead, India joined France in expressing “serious concern” at the ongoing conflict. Both leaders highlighted “the need to respect the UN Charter, international law and the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states.”
Bilateral defense ties figured prominently in the discussions between the two leaders. France agreed to support India’s “Make In India” initiative and further transfer of technology to India. The building of six Scorpene submarines at Mazagon Dock Limited was cited as an example of this. The sixth Scorpene submarine, INS Vagsheer, was launched in April 2022. The submarine will now go through comprehensive tests and trials for about a year in order to ensure its operational worthiness. The timely delivery of Rafale fighter jets despite the pandemic increased India’s confidence in France, as highlighted in the joint statement.
Defense cooperation between India and France has remained strong with a series of joint exercises including Shakti, Varuna, Pegase, Desert Knight, and Garuda being undertaken on a regular basis. The joint statement noted that considering France’s Indo-Pacific commitments, maritime cooperation between the two has “reached new levels of trust and will continue through exercises, exchanges and joint endeavors throughout the Indian Ocean.” India has growing maritime security concerns in the Indian Ocean given the increasing Chinese footprint in the region and Beijing’s belligerent intrusion, for example into India’s Exclusive Economic Zone in the Andamans. Given this backdrop, it is likely that New Delhi will pursue Paris to step up bilateral engagements but also strengthen its naval wherewithal in the region as a deterrent measure.
Space cooperation between the two countries was also highlighted in the joint statement. France, along with the U.S. and Russia (formerly as the Soviet Union), has remained one of India’s closest space partners. More recently, the two countries decided to cooperate on ways to secure outer space from a number of growing space security challenges including counterspace challenges. “Maintaining a secure access to space for all” and discussions on the global governance of space are some of the relatively new areas in the India-France agenda.
In September last year, Indian media reports talked about New Delhi starting a space security dialogue with Paris. This is significant for a couple of reasons. India has similar security dialogues with only two other countries – the United States and Japan. But considering that France has remained one of India’s oldest and trusted strategic partners, a space security dialogue with France is no surprise. Additionally, India engaging in a new space security dialogue is an indication of the worsening space security environment.
With increasing number of anti-satellite (ASAT) tests and cyber and electronic warfare incidents in space, the need for like-minded partners such as India and France to come together to debate possible ways to effectively stem the current trend is real. The joint statement noted that the bilateral strategic dialogue on space issues will bring different stakeholders, including experts from space and defense departments, to discuss the different challenges in space, and the norms and rules that are required to regulate activities in space.
The two sides agreed to conduct the first dialogue later in the year. Developing a shared understanding of the security challenges and developing certain rules of the road involving major space players in the Indo-Pacific is critical. China’s growing space and counterspace capabilities have pushed many Indo-Pacific powers to develop their own appropriate deterrent measures in order to protect their assets. Along with capability development, framing new rules of the road regulating space affairs is equally important, something that is gaining greater grounds among the key Indo-Pacific space players.
Similarly, developing a common understanding of the cyber security challenges and “promoting cyber norms and principles” so as to effectively counter cyber threats and enable a “peaceful, secure and open cyberspace” was also agreed by India and France.
Terrorism, climate change, clean energy, and sustainable development too found attention at the Macron-Modi discussion. The two sides agreed to further their counterterrorism agenda by addressing a number of areas including financing of terrorism, radicalization and violent extremism, as well as misuse of the internet for terrorism and violent extremism.
Given the long-standing and trusted partnership between India and France and the intensifying geopolitical trends in the Indo-Pacific region, New Delhi and Paris are likely to build an even closer partnership that will focus on building India’s military wherewithal. France appears ready to further India’s Make In India initiative, which can possibly help both countries. Even as the bilateral relationship is strong, India and France must forge more minilaterals in the Indo-Pacific, getting more countries to endorse the free and open Indo-Pacific strategy. Beyond diplomatic support and arms, France’s actual material capacity to help counter China in the Indo-Pacific remains to be seen.
This commentary originally appeared in The Diplomat.