India and France Cooperation in the Indo Pacific: Necessity of the Hour

India and France partnership is an unexpected coincidence in the Indian Ocean Region. A former imperial power and an emerging nation hardly have converging interests, more so when it comes to maritime sphere. But India and France share a common trait of civilizational exceptionalism as both nations have exercised fairly independent foreign policy amidst a divided world. India is known to have a non aligned status in international politics while France has defied US decree numerous times despite being a security ally. In fact after the end of Cold War France was of the view that United States has turned into a hyper power.  French discomfort with the unipolar system led it to embrace virtues of multipolarity after the end of Cold War. India too embraced multipolarity as the norm in its conduct of International relations. With shifting geopolitical priorities from Atlantic to Asia Pacific, France decided on India as a preferred partner in the Indian Ocean. It was one of the first countries to sign ‘Strategic Partnership’ agreement with India in 1998 during President Jacques Chirac’s visit to India. Even before India’s nuclear test in 1998, France was opposed to India’s exclusion from global nuclear order and demanded rectification of the order. After the nuclear tests France showed a greater understanding towards India’s security compulsions and embarked on resumption of strategic dialogues. The dialogues that began in 1998 has grown over years in field of nuclear, space, defence, cyber security, intelligence sharing and counter terrorism operations. Bilateral military exercises between the two countries started with naval exercise Varuna in 2001, followed by air forces in 2004 and armies in 2011. These exercises have become a regular affair since then.

Space cooperation is one of the earliest domains India and France have worked upon. The launch facility at Sriharikota was set up by French assistance. The Centaur and Viking rocket technologies were also shared to Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) in the 1970s but Cold war constraints prevented further cooperation. Times changed after 1990s when CNES, French space agency and ISRO collaborated on Megha- Tropiques initiatives, a satellite mission for climate studies.  Since the Strategic Agreement of 1998 India and France have worked on joint missions in space for meteorology, climate change and oceanography. In 2018 France and India concluded the Joint Vision for Space Cooperation.

In nuclear field France came to India’s rescue in times of crises. After the US cut off the nuclear supplies for Tarapur in 1984 due to domestic reasons, France became the fuel supplier. After the Nuclear Suppliers Group waiver in 2008, India and France signed a civil nuclear cooperation agreement which provided the framework for French Extended producer responsibility reactors in India. An agreement was also signed between India and France for building six EPR nuclear reactors with total capacity of 9.6 GW at Jaitapur.  

French Aircrafts have been part of Indian air fleet since the 1960s. In defence sector an agreement to build six Scorpene submarines in India with French assistance was signed in 2005. Short range missiles and radar equipments were also acquired subsequently.  The Rafale Agreement also helped deepening ties between private defence sectors in both countries. Regular exercises between defense services have led to agreements on logistics support and intelligence sharing. In keeping up with this vision, India and France came up with Joint Strategic Vision for Cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region in 2018. 

There has been a recent convergence of maritime interests of India and France. Like India, France has been worried about China’s overtures in the Indian Ocean Region. With the advent of concept of Indo Pacific it became clear that interests of India and France lie in the cooperation. Fortunately both countries almost share the geographical concept of Indo Pacific i.e. from eastern coast of Africa to western coasts of America. French overseas territories in the Indian and Pacific Ocean provide it with second largest exclusive economic zone in the world. It has long maintained bases in Reunion islands and Djibouti and established another in Abu Dhabi in 2009.  With economic and security dimensions at stake France has adopted for an aggressive response as stated in Joint Strategic Vision of 2018.

French Interests in the Indo Pacific

France has claimed to be a legitimate actor belonging to Indian Ocean Rim and Indo Pacific. Historically it has maintained a presence in the region either due to colonial possessions or to counter Soviet Russia’s expansion. It has always emphasized that it is not an outside rather a resident power in the Indian and Pacific Ocean. France’s presence in the region in the 21st century is also testament of the fact that it wants to become a middle power with global outreach. A middle power is a sovereign state that is not a great power but wields a large influence and international recognition.  In a tussle of world domination between US and China, France is trying to leverage its position and offers an alternative arrangement to other middle powers of the region as its commitment to multipolarity. The vast distance of metropolitan France from western shores of Indian Ocean makes it impossible for France to secure the region unilaterally therefore it has been in search of multilateral alliances. Its commitments include respect of the international law, rule based order, open sea lanes of communication, combating piracy and terrorism etc.

France has also developed strong relations with many littoral nations of Indian Ocean to strengthen security of the region. Paris has established intense economic and defence relations with Gulf countries like UAE and Qatar and also with some Southeast Asian states like Singapore. It built strategic relations with China, India and Japan but eventually drifted away from China due to its aggressive policies in the Indian Ocean. Paris has acknowledged India’s growing naval ambitions in the Indian Ocean and has found convergence of interests in its growth.

France has traditionally been focused on the Western side of Indian Ocean. It has recently formed an interest on the Eastern front as part of larger engagement with Asia. Indian Ocean provides two avenues of military interest for France. One is in the Southwest Indian Ocean and other in the Arabo- Persian Gulf. In the Southwest Indian Ocean France has sovereignty over its two overseas territories of La Reunion and Mayotte which together constitute a population of 1 million citizens. The French Southern and Antarctic territories are large maritime expanses of economic, strategic and scientific significance. Together they form an area of 2.6 million square kilometers and require maintenance of 1900 troops in the islands of Reunion and Mayotte. However these bases have to face some non-traditional security issues like illegal fishing, illegal migration and southward extension of Somali pirates. To overcome these challenges France has promoted maritime cooperation with other states of the region like Madagascar, Seychelles and big stakeholders like South Africa and Mozambique.

The second area of relevance for French military is Northwest Indian Ocean. With two major inter services bases in Abu Dhabi and Djibouti; France maintains a permanent military presence in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Aden. The presence of these two bases serves three major strategic objectives for the France:

  1. To maintain stability in the Middle East, the Persian Gulf and the Horn of Africa. A conflict ridden area but at the same time crucial for global security.
  2. To maintain an operational capability near the important choke points: Straits of Hormuz and Bab-el- Mandeb and sea lines of communication along the Persian Gulf and Mediterranean Sea. These points are crucial for global energy imports and trade.
  3. To act as a platform to project force in the greater Indian Ocean Region, with Abu Dhabi serving as French Indian Ocean Regional Command.

In Eastern Indian Ocean, France has eagerly enhanced its focus realizing increasingly clout of Asia and realizing its responsibility as a permanent member of UN Security Council. The 2008 French white paper on Defence and National security argued that France must move away from its traditional preoccupation with West Africa toward the Middle East and Indian Ocean and from there to East Asia. In a strategy document of 2009 French Prime Minister Francois Fillon declared that France has presence in every ocean and extensive marine areas under their jurisdiction. He also talked about returning France to its historic maritime role. In its 2013 White Paper France identified the rise of China as affecting the established “equilibrium of East Asia”  The paper also talked about securing Indian Ocean as an European access point to Asia. With China’s neighbours looking to arm themselves against China’s assertiveness France offered them a helping hand and an opportunity to expand its naval arms to the region. The 2013 white paper also reemphasized France’s role in the Indian Ocean reinforced by the development of privileged relations with India. As a committed player in security of the region the paper stated “For our country, the stability of Asia and freedom of navigation are diplomatic and economic priorities. Alongside its allies, France would, in the event of an open crisis, make a political and military contribution at the appropriate level.” However this cannot be ignored that France has limited operational capabilities in the Eastern Ocean and East of Malacca. Thus France has depended on defence and security cooperation with various states in the region. It has also strengthened its links with Southeast Asia by signing strategic partnership with Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam.

With regards to the Pacific Ocean, France also has significant islands and associated EEZs, ‘archipelago of power’ which require substantial permanent military forces. French possessions in Pacific are New Caledonia, Wallis and Futuna, French Polynesia and uninhabited Clipperton Island.  New Caledonia hold 20-25 percent of World’s nickel reserves therefore it is strategically important for France. Most of the South east Pacific is occupied by French Polynesia with a population of around 272,000. This includes 118 islands such as Tahiti; with an enormous EEZ of 4767,242 square km. 

As for established regional structures in the Indian Ocean, France is the founding member of the Indian Ocean Commission established in 1982. It brings together Reunion islands with other independent island states of Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius and Seychelles. France is also founding member of Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) established in 2008 and seeks to get full membership of Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). As for regional structures in Pacific, France is the founding member of South Pacific Commission, established in 1947. France has also been member of Western Pacific Naval Symposium from 1998 onwards.

Indian Imperatives of the Indo Pacific

Being the resident power and as a nation which considers Indian Ocean as its backyard Indo Pacific was a great opportunity to further its maritime interests. However the concept was propagated by US in the wake of China’s rise, the acceptance of Indo Pacific in Indian strategy has been there for a long time. In 2004, Indian Maritime Doctrine alluded to “the shift in global maritime focus from the Atlantic- Pacific to Pacific-Indian”. Therefore beyond the Indian Ocean, the Western Pacific has been identified as falling within the ambit of India’s security interests. India considers the geographical expanse of Indo Pacific as through the east coast of Africa to the island nations in the Pacific Ocean. However with the rise of China and advent of ‘Strings of Pearls’ strategy India’s embrace of the Indo Pacific has been much more potent. India’s approach to Indo Pacific is exemplified by its evolving Look east Policy and ASEAN centrality. At The Shangri-la Dialogue of 2018 Indian Prime Minister shared major policy perspective of India on Indo Pacific. He focused on inclusiveness, openness and ASEAN centrality in the concept of Indo Pacific. Security in the region must be maintained through dialogue, a common rules-based order, freedom of navigation, unimpeded commerce, and settlement of disputes in accordance with international law. India supports a rules-based, balanced, and stable trade environment in the Indo- Pacific region. Further India has been an active participant in mechanism like Indian Ocean Rim Association, ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus, and Indian Ocean Naval Symposium etc. Further through Forum for India- Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC) India is moving towards engaging Pacific Island countries. Economic imperatives have been at forefront of India’s Indo Pacific Strategy. In security front it has entertained the concept of QUAD- a grouping of US, India, Australia and Japan but it has officially not come into fruition. India has embarked into security and logistics agreement with France that would allow it to access military bases in Djibouti, UAE and French Reunion Island.

India has been interested in building a naval facility in Seychelles’ Assumption Island and entered into a bilateral agreement for the same in 2018, but the plan has faced some local resistance due to militarization fears. India’s efforts have been praiseworthy but they do lack a solid security component against China due to weakness of India’s defence forces and inability to project power in the oceans.   

Indian Naval shortcomings

Indian Navy has aspired to become a 200 ship fleet since 2012 when it articulated its ambitions for the 15 year period. It was in congruence with India’s plan of being a net security provider in the Indian Ocean Region. With the navy’s doctrine and mission statement it felt like although ambitious the blueprint of future blue water navy was ready. The Defence ministries agreed on the plan albeit not commiting funds to it and deciding it on case to case basis from necessity to acquisitions on its own merits. Eventually the plan floundered and has been unachievable with successive governments failing to provide the means. Although India continues to be active in Indian Ocean Region it spends far less than its peers and competitors. Figures from 2017-18 indicate that India spends only 15 percent of its total military expenditure on its navy, far lower than its peers in the Quad. The United States leads the pack, spending nearly 30 percent of its military expenditure on its navy, while Aus­tralia and Japan spend nearly 25 percent and 23 percent respectively. Official numbers from China are hard to obtain, but reports indicate that China spends nearly three times as much as India on its military overall. The lack of expenditure on India’s part has come at a time when navy has recognized the need to increase its capabilities. While India already has one commissioned carrier INS Vikramaditya and plans to commission a second, the INS Vikrant which has already faced delays and cost overruns. However when compared to India’s actual expenditure on its navy, the ambitions are not matched by its spending. During 2017-18 Indian navy asked for $5.2 billion for its expenditure but was allocated only $2.9 billion. This under allocation meant that Navy would be able to achieve just its operational cost leaving no money for acquisitions or further modernization. As a result delay in building aircraft carriers like Vikrant or Arihant submarines which makes India unable to deter China in the Indo Pacific.

The lack of funds is also reflected in India’s underutilization of strategically located Andaman and Nicobar islands. While India has built a tri service theatre command on the island to secure its interests in the Straits of Malacca, it continues to place limited assets on the islands and have used them only for logistics support. It is used as a logistics facility for planning and coordination for navy’s deployment in East and Southeast Asia. India lacks in understanding that Andaman and Nicobar could be used as a true command to deepen collaboration and cohesion between India’s three military services. It possibly hinders on India’s plan to acquire P-8 platform as well as potential acquisition of Sea Guardian.

With the recent reduction in Navy’s budget, procurement and modernization have been hit hard. The effect of this announcement is also felt in Indo Pacific region where questions will be asked about Indian Navy’s ability to act as an important player. The self mandated regional role taken by Navy would not be backed by economic strength. India’s regional diplomacy has revolved around capacity building of Indian Ocean littoral states. This has included transfer of hardware at no costs, training, maintenance and imparting maritime domain awareness. With paucity of funds and Indian navy unable to achieve its capability goals, its ability to support its maritime neighbours will be hindered significantly. In such a scenario it is quite likely that India is under danger of ceding maritime space to China and loses a measure of conventional maritime advantage against its traditional rival Pakistan. Until and unless India ties up with a major power in Indian Ocean it would be unable to deter China on its own naval capabilities.            

According to Kanwal Sibal, India may have a major interest in Western Pacific; it should be underlined by the fact that it is an Indian Ocean power with enormous responsibilities to safeguard its coastlines, island territories, off shore economic assets and its EEZs. This has also bogged down India’s ambitious targets for the Indo Pacific. The two vital choke points in Indian Ocean region: Strait of Hormuz and Malacca are of operational significance for Indian navy as they hold the key for international energy and trade routes. Besides India had experience of sea borne terrorists’ threats which requires its coast guards and Navy to be always ready to address the situation. Piracy has also become a serious threat for commercial shipping in the Indian Ocean. Merchant vessels of many countries pass through Indian Ocean with Indian seafarers in them. Protection and rescue of these sea men in piracy infested waters is also one of the tasks of Indian Navy. Therefore Indian navy has been unable to maximize its efforts towards becoming blue water navy. Unfortunately there are no easy answers for the Indian Navy. Its need for the fleet of future is as real as lack of resources to attain it. There are not many options in present scenario. Either Navy has reassess its vision to match its capabilities and Indian Maritime Doctrine or it can actively take support of keen nations like France to overcome some of the shortcomings it faces in Indian Ocean Region.  

Avenues of Cooperation  

In October 2019 French President Emanuel Macron announced three pronged security partnership with India in Southern Indian Ocean against the backdrop of China’s assertiveness in the region. Macron stated that India and France were sharing the analysis of joint maritime security in the Southern Indian Ocean, working on joint surveillance of the region and a possible deployment of Indian navy maritime patrol vessel in Reunion islands. In early 2020 France and India held a joint exercise in the Indian Ocean. First of its kind the two navies conducted joint patrols from Reunion Islands, the French naval base in the Indian Ocean. India has so far conducted Coordinated Patrols (CORPAT) only with its neighbours. The United States had made an offer for CORPAT exercise but India rejected it. It shows the confidence that France enjoys in Indian diplomatic circles is unparalleled. It is also because France is not overwhelming power like USA and as a middle power is more reliable. The divergence in definition of Indo Pacific between US and India and transactional approach of US- India dynamic has led India to search for other reliable partners. Moreover India’s economically driven approach towards ensuring freedom of seas is appreciated by France. France has also encouraged India’s growing role in policing the South West Indian Ocean against pirates. However France has catered to the fact that India acknowledges its legitimate interests in the IOR. India has also accepted France as a net security provider in the Indian Ocean Region. At the 2019 Shangri –La dialogue, French defence Minister Florence Parly articulation of new strategy of Indo Pacific emphasized on building links and joint actions under the umbrella of shared security. She also talked about engagement with ASEAN and IORA nations to expand and consolidate France’s alliance system in the Indo Pacific. India and France are on the same page when it comes for concern and challenges in the region.

India’s maritime presence in the Pacific islands is limited as the eastern fleet of Indian Navy is in Vishakapatnam. India has operations up to the Malacca Strait but not as far as Pacific islands. It would need another fleet in the Andaman and Nicobar islands to extend its reach to Pacific. At present India does not have presence in Pacific but diplomatically it has shown interest in South Pacific affairs by participating in Pacific Islands Forum since 2002. India also provided foreign aid to islands in the South Pacific by offering soft loans for infrastructural projects. France has extensive presence in South Pacific. The logistics agreement signed between India and France could prove fruitful for India in Pacific as France could help India in expanding its base in Pacific, culturally and strategically.  

Benefits of the Alliance

France can truly benefit from evolving strategic relations with India. With a transactional dynamic with US and colonial hangover with UK, India would prefer France to be its long term ally. Closer relations with India and increased involvement in Indian Ocean will pave the way for France entry into ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) through which it would be able to access Southeast Asian economies. This would help France diversify its relations and attain a special position in Indo Pacific as the only European power to do so. It would give France greater legitimacy in the ASEAN and hence strengthening Indo Pacific.

India on the other hand will benefit from ties with France as it’s a partner that shares the values of multilateralism, pluralism and deterrence based policy. It also gains an ally which shares the same geographical construct of Indo Pacific. Relationship with France is also devoid of any domestic burden as since 1998 France support for India has bi partisan consensus. The joint patrols will prove to be additional security for India’s maritime sphere. In addition a commitment to build a maritime surveillance system represents a practical and promising measure towards enhancing security in the Indian Ocean. It can help position India as a security leader in the region. India’s decision to cooperate with France in the Indo Pacific would address its security needs and also fulfill security architecture for the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

Limitations

France comes to the region with the claim that it is a resident power. Many experts in France believe that France has been giving away its influence in Indian Ocean to India. India’s activism in the Western Indian Ocean is seen as encroachment on France’s traditional sphere of influence. It tries to retain its influence and hence would be a little apprehensive about India’s expansion in its overseas territories. It could turn out to be as transactional relation as of India’s with US. France would like to retain its dominance in the South Pacific and might work on set principles to oppose China in the Indian Ocean. Secondly it is difficult for France to deal with Indian Civil- military bureaucracy. It has caused hindrance in the defense engagement of two nations. The amount of time taken by Indian establishment to conclude a treaty or arrangement baffles France. It could happen that France engages itself with other middle powers like Australia, Indonesia and form an equally formidable alliance. India had to take pro active role in the affairs of Indo Pacific to keep France as its major security partner.

Recommendations

The election Of Macron in France in 2017 brought a lot of enthusiasm in maritime engagement of India and France. After 2017 a number of high level dialogues held along the lines of maritime security. As a result maritime cooperation between India and France is likely to advance along multiple axes.  Some of the future actions that could be taken are as follows:

Strengthening maritime domain awareness

In 2017 India and France signed a White Shipping Agreement during the second round of their maritime security dialogue in New Delhi. Such agreements allow nations to exchange information on commercial shipping and create a shared picture of movements at sea. With their respective strength in eastern and Western Indian Oceans New Delhi and Paris can benefit from more intensive exchange of naval intelligence. With the signing of Logistics Support Agreement between respective armies of India and France in 2018, it has become easy for India to access French bases in Indian and Pacific Ocean. It is one of the first steps in India’s entry to the Pacific islands. France can engage India in joint exercises, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts in the Indian and Pacific Islands thus expanding Indian Navy’s reach.

Joint Military activity and multilateral cooperation

India and France could embark on Future military engagements in Western Indian Ocean and South Pacific. With coordinated patrols with France, India is now ready to guard sea lanes of communication beyond its reach. India could help France attain a member status in Indian Ocean Rim Association while France can help India in getting membership of various Pacific organizations and strengthen FIPIC.

Developing the Andaman and Nicobar Islands

As India wants to develop infrastructure in Andaman and Nicobar islands, it could engage with Reunion islands as sister islands of Andaman and Nicobar. Both these islands sit across key choke points: Malacca strait and entire coast of Africa and Mozambique Channel. India can get access to shores of Africa and provide support to French in Malacca strait to maintain free and open navigation and in turn develop Andaman and Nicobar as a hub to keep a check on Malacca Strait.

Delhi-Canberra- Paris Axis

President Macron in 2018 talked about a trilateral alliance to counter China. Delhi and Paris have real opportunity to extend their partnership to other countries and form trilateral. Australia is an ideal candidate for future cooperation in the Indo Pacific. As a fellow middle power Australia alone cannot check the overtures of China and its proximity to Indian and Pacific islands would make it a useful ally in the Indo Pacific. It is also the member of most Pacific and Indian Ocean organization thus helping India gain an avenue to Pacific. 

Conclusion  

India and France have formed a steady relationship in the past two decades. France has become a close partner of India like Soviet Russia was during Cold War. From supporting India for permanent seat in UNSC to providing India’s nuclear demands France has taken an active role in India’s rise in the region. A rare Anglo Saxon power to be not antagonized in India it has provided a privilege status to India in its imagination of Indo Pacific. As a major power it is accepting its responsibility in maintaining rule based order in the Indian Ocean. With US decoupling with the world France has been ready to be a net security provider in the region with help of other powers. India, an ambitious country with ambitious maritime policy is looking towards allies in deterring China from encroaching in Indian Ocean. For India it is a sovereignty battle of Indian Ocean which it is slowly losing to China. In absence of a strong defense force, collective security is the only way to maintain a rule based Free and Open Indo Pacific. Thus India- France Cooperation is crucial for the success of multilateral cooperation in the Indo Pacific.

Source : Modern Diplomacy

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