France actualising its “resident power” status in the Indo-Pacific has led to its emergence as India’s partner of choice in the Indian Ocean region
By Kashish Parpiani
In October, France appointed its first ambassador for the Indo-Pacific, tasked with representing French interests in the region. Notably, France was also the first European country to launch an Indo-Pacific strategy. Wherein, France identified the Indo-Pacific as “a geopolitical and geo-economic reality,” on account of the region being home to “its overseas territories and 93% of its exclusive economic zone.” Beyond such endorsements of the Indo-Pacific construct — which seeks to interlink the destines of the Indian and Pacific Oceans — France has particularly focused on the former with India-France ties at the core of its engagements.
The Indo-Parisian partnership
French President Emmanuel Macron’s 2018 visit to India oversaw the release of the ‘Joint Strategic Vision of India-France Cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region.’ Wherein, Prime Minster Narendra Modi and Macron recognised “the crucial role that the multi-dimensional India-France strategic partnership will play in ensuring peace, security and stability in, and in bringing robust economic growth and prosperity” to the Indian Ocean region. At the time, media reports drew parallels with US President Barack Obama’s 2015 visit, which also oversaw the release of a separate statement on the “US-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region.” However, the India-France statement focused solely on the Indian Ocean and even identified France as a “State of the Indian Ocean rim,” given its overseas territories of La Réunion, Mayotte and French Southern and Antarctic Territories.
Another similarity between the trajectories of India-France and India-US ties, has been the recent surge in defence trade. As per data from 2013-17 (compared with the previous five years), the US recorded an increase of 550 percent in its arms exports to India. In the same timeframe, France recorded an increase of 572 percent. Hardly moving towards the envisaged dynamic of co-production and co-development, the India-US case included India’s purchase of platforms like AH-64E Apache helicopters and CH-47F Chinook helicopters.
Whereas in the French case, the surge came at the hands of India’s 2016 purchase of the Rafale multirole fighter aircraft and the reinvigoration of the delayed Project-75 for technology transfer of Scorpene submarines. France’s support on the latter has been critical, in view of the US having tight restrictions on the export of submarines, a reduction in India’s dependence on Russian platforms due to threat of sanctions, and China outnumbering India with its operational fleet of submarines. In addition, Project 75 is at the core of the Modi government’s push to cement India’s position as a submarine building nation, in sync with its ‘Make in India’ and ‘Aatma Nirbhar Bharat’ initiatives.
Furthermore, in late 2019, at an event hosted by the Observer Research Foundation, French Navy Chief Admiral Christophe Prazuck announced that India and France were in talks to hold Joint Patrols in the Indian Ocean. Subsequently, early this year, India and France conducted a Joint Patrol from the Reunion Island, with French Navy personnel aboard an Indian Navy P-8I maritime surveillance aircraft. Whereas, with the United States, which is often deemed to be India’s “natural partner” in the Indo-Pacific, New Delhi has declined offers from “several senior US military officers” to conduct such patrols.
In addition, the India-France partnership has swiftly developed an appetite for lateral expansion, with the initiation of the India-France-Australia trilateral. Since its announcement by President Macron in 2018, the “Paris-Delhi-Canberra axis” has been institutionalised with the three partners finalising agreements on reciprocal access to each other’s military bases. Building on France and India’s March 2018 agreement for “reciprocal logistics support between their Armed Forces,” France and Australia signed the Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA) in May 2018, and India and Australia finalised the MLSA early this year.
This bears significance for extending cooperation to the eastern flank of the Indian Ocean. In addition to France’s Reunion island, which provides access to the western/southwestern Indian Ocean, partners will now have reciprocal access to the eastern/southeastern Indian Ocean with Australia’s Cocos Islands (near the straits of Sunda, Lombok, and Ombai-Wetar) and India’s Andaman and Nicobar islands (which overlook the strait of Malacca).
Finally, this trajectory of India-France partnership stems from substantial policy-level convergences and is not merely the product of nascent conversations around European “strategic autonomy” or India’s intent to diversify its portfolio of strategic partnerships.
Paris over Washington?
Consider, for instance, India’s decision to conduct Joint Patrols with France and not the United States. With the Southern Indian Ocean being home to overseas French territories, the decision fit squarely within India’s precedent of practising its ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy for maritime cooperation. In the past, this has encompassed India limiting its engagement to joint surveillance with the Maldives, the Seychelles and Mauritius, and Coordinated Patrols (CORPATs) with near and extended maritime neighbours like Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand and Indonesia. With France’s “resident power” status in the Indian Ocean, India then did not technically depart from its long-standing policy precedent.
Furthermore, one may argue, France’s engagement in the Indian Ocean stems from it having real ‘skin in the game.’ Wherein, its overseas territories render the region to be a matter of sovereignty even for Paris. At the same time, the common prioritisation of the region does not seem to impede French acceptance of India’s natural providence over the Indian Ocean region. For instance, towards India’s gradual emergence as a net security provider in the region, India set up the Information Fusion Centre – Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR) to “engage with partner nations and multinational maritime constructs to develop comprehensive maritime domain awareness and share information on vessels of interest.” Headquartered in Gurugram, France was the first country to post its Liaison Officer at the IFC-IOR.
This is not to say the United States is not supportive of India’s interests. In fact, India’s fleet of US-made P-8 maritime surveillance aircraft constitutes the backbone of IFC-IOR’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance efforts. Similarly, one cannot deny the importance of American support for India’s envisioned maritime capacity build-up. The Donald Trump administration for instance, yielded to requests for specific platforms (like the MH-60 Romeo Seahawk helicopter), adopted a policy to ‘front-load’ clearances for ancillary equipment (like for India’s P-8 aircrafts), and even overturned the freeze on India’s purchase of unmanned systems (like the Sea Guardian UAS). Moreover, the US would remain India’s preeminent partner in the broader Indo-Pacific, owing to its unrivalled power projection capabilities and network of offshore bases.
However, unlike the India-France case of sovereignty, the American calculus over the Indian Ocean pertains to broader US strategic considerations in the Indo-Pacific. Whereby, the US’ primary purpose behind cultivating India’s emergence as a regional goods provider in the Indian Ocean, is the intent to then focus its resources in the Pacific theatre (chiefly, the South and East China Seas) of the Indo-Pacific expanse.
Lastly, unlike the India-US case — wherein the momentum of defence trade has often preceded policy-level convergences, India-France defence ties have stemmed from a complete alignment of outlooks. Both countries for instance, have long championed a definition of the Indo-Pacific which extends to the shores of East Africa. Even though the India-US defence dynamic has recently assumed a degree of nuance with its discussed focus on Indian maritime capability, it was only in January this year when Washington expanded its definition of the Indo-Pacific to completely align it with India’s emphases on East Africa and the north-west Indian Ocean region.
Whereas, convergence with France has led to India expanding its footprint, with Paris reportedly facilitating New Delhi’s desire to post a Navy Liaison Officer at the Regional Maritime Information Fusion Centre (RMIFC) in Madagascar. In addition, in view of India’s continued interests in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, France is also expected to oversee India’s inclusion in the European Maritime Awareness in the Strait of Hormuz (EMASOH) — which is headquartered at the French military base in Abu Dhabi, UAE.
Hence, even as the US is expected to remain India’s preeminent partner in the Indo-Pacific, France’s “resident power” status renders it to be India’s partner of choice in the Indian Ocean region.