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India and France in the Indian Ocean: The making of a new strategic partnership

India and France's shared maritime security and geopolitical interests in the Indo-Pacific to strengthen their strategic martime strategy

One of the cornerstones in India’s recent heightened engagement in the Indian Ocean has been to consolidate its strategic partnerships in the region. In light of the maritime security challenges that New Delhi is posed with, having comprehensive and mature partnerships with other actors in the region is imperative. These have evolved in terms of India’s robust engagements at minilateral and bilateral levels. Whilst the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), comprising India, Australia, Japan, and the US has been at the centre of focus by those looking at India’s maritime engagements, several other partnerships facilitating India’s strategic manoeuvring in the Indian Ocean merit attention. One such strategic partner is France. India, for a long time, has been a key player in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and has been intricately involved in the geopolitical crossroads of the Indo-Pacific. France too has made significant progress in recognising the strategic realities that are emerging in the Indo-Pacific. Amongst the many bilateral, minilateral, and multilateral maritime and naval initiatives undertaken by India in the Indian Ocean in recent years, following its strategic framework of SAGAR, heightened engagement with France has appeared to be the most critical in many ways. Firstly, an analysis of India’s naval engagements in the Indian Ocean would reveal that most of the initiatives have been undertaken with countries which are centrally located in India’s littoral neighbourhood, such as the Maldives, Seychelles, and Sri Lanka, through the Colombo Security Conclave. Secondly, with the growing strategic embrace of the Indo-Pacific, several maritime engagements with the QUAD member countries, under the aegis of the Malabar Exercise, have gained new steam. In addition to this, if there is one country which has featured prominently in India’s maritime security matrix in the Indian Ocean, that is France.

India, for a long time, has been a key player in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and has been intricately involved in the geopolitical crossroads of the Indo-Pacific.

Both India and France have evolved as significant strategic actors in the Indian Ocean. India and France have both taken a monumental leap in their strategic partnership recently, in the context of their shared interests in the Indo-Pacific. However, the Indian Ocean has remained at the centre of their strategic engagement, primarily in the domain of maritime security. The significance of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) in shaping the strategic partnership between New Delhi and Paris was visible during the French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to India in 2018, when the heads of state of both the countries welcomed the ‘Joint Strategic Vision of India-France Cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region’ as a roadmap to strengthen their ties. Maritime Security, in particular, gained steam in the evolution of the Indo-French strategic partnership as the two countries articulated their common vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific.

At a bilateral level, Exercise Varuna, the flagship naval exercise between the two countries has been at the heart of Indo-French strategic synergy in the Indian Ocean. In 2022, the 20th edition of the bilateral exercise was culminated, broadening its scope of engagement. The focus of this exercise has been on facilitating interoperability, thereby, strengthening naval complementarity between the two. With China’s growing strategic footprint in the Indian Ocean, maritime partnerships through naval exercises like Varuna appear to be well poised for both India and France. Whilst the geographical proximity between India and China; and Beijing’s growing maritime presence in the Indian Ocean, around India is a cause for alarm from New Delhi, France has also increasingly embraced its Indian Ocean identity through its island presence in the region. Increasingly, the Réunion Island has been used as a pivot by France to mark its presence in the Indian Ocean. Despite being characterised as a European power for long, France has continued to articulate its stakes in the IOR2. Whilst for India, Exercise Varuna has been a way to display the intensity of its maritime partnerships in the Indian Ocean, for France, this has been an opportunity to consolidate its Indian Ocean identity by engaging with a resident power of the Indian Ocean.

 

In 2021, India joined the French flagship naval exercise, La Perouse, for the first time. India joined the cohort with the other three QUAD countries, Australia, Japan, and the US, prompting speculations of a ‘QUAD plus France’ formulation. The way in which the four QUAD countries have stepped up their engagements within the QUAD framework has been a testament to the strategic commitment they have to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific. In this light, aligning with France by jointly participating in the La Perouse exercise has indeed breathed new life into the future of this alliance. What France has to gain from this arrangement can be traced back to its ability to engage with the front-runners of the Indo-Pacific narrative, as well as find more ground as a resident actor with strategic interests in the Indo-Pacific.

In tandem with France’s growing interest in the Indian Ocean and the wider Indo-Pacific, President Macron suggested a formulation of a new alliance, the Paris-Delhi-Canberra axis, involving France, India, and Australia to aid the joint vision of the three like-minded countries for the Indo-Pacific. Interestingly, this was proposed by Macron in his speech at Garden Island in Australia in 2018, where Macron has further emphasised the need for stakeholders in the Indo-Pacific to be mindful of Chinese overtures in lieu of its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. Australia, India, and France are located in the Indian Ocean in a very unique way covering the contours of the ocean space. Whilst Australia is placed at one end of the cartography, the Réunion Island is placed at the other, with India occupying the centre. The potential of any strategic axis involving the three states has immense potential to shape the evolving geopolitics of the region.

India joined the French flagship naval exercise, La Perouse, for the first time. India joined the cohort with the other three QUAD countries, Australia, Japan, and the US, prompting speculations of a ‘QUAD plus France’ formulation.

However, even during instances of divergences between Australia and France, as was witnessed in the aftermath of the formulation of AUKUS (Australia, United Kingdom, and the US), nullifying a pre-existing defence deal between France and Australia, ties between India and France did not whither. In fact, displaying their commitment towards their shared interests and vision for the Indo-Pacific, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Macron reiterated the need to find ‘new and innovative ways’ to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific. This appeared as an exhibition of bonhomie between Narendra Modi and Emmanuel Macron.

Both India and France have done well to sustain their maritime partnership, specifically by the way of naval engagements. India recently concluded the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium Maritime Exercise (IMEX-22), conducted at the Indian state of Goa in the Arabian Sea. The exercise witnessed participation from 15 out of 25 member nations of the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS). Notably, the exercises were observed by the naval chiefs of India and France. This needs to be seen in light of France’s growing interest in the multilateral platforms in the Indian Ocean. With France’s formal accession to the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) in 2020, France has stepped up its multilateral engagements in the region. In addition to becoming an observer to the IMEX-22, France has also supported the IORA by funding capacity building efforts to coordinate and support its vision for a peaceful and prosperous Indian Ocean. With India being one of the key proponents of the IORA, France’s expansive engagement with the organisation will indeed complement their bilateral efforts to consolidate greater ties in the Indian Ocean.

Whilst, historically the defence sector has been at the core of Indo-French ties, increasingly, maritime synergy has come to characterise the bilateral ties between the two, to a great extent. There is no doubt that even though, it is market complementarity in the defence sector has helped in cementing a solid foundation between the two states it is maritime cooperation that appears to be shaping the strategic partnership between the two states. The Indian Ocean has truly emerged as a global centre stage where new maritime partnerships are being forged. In this context, France’s efforts to mould its global and regional outlook, from being just a European player, to a country of the Indian Ocean rim in order to mark its presence in the region, seems to be timely and prompt. In turn, not only has France itself emerged as a leading proponent of the shifting global stage, but has also influence Europe as a whole to focus on the region.

France’s efforts to mould its global and regional outlook, from being just a European player, to a country of the Indian Ocean rim in order to mark its presence in the region, seems to be timely and prompt.

What makes the bilateral ties between the two states truly unique is that India’s partnership with France also leverages New Delhi to seek similar such partnerships with other European players. This has to some extent manifested by way of articulations from countries such as the UKGermany, as well as the European Union recognising the importance of India in constructing the new strategic realities within the Indian Ocean. In light of the growing challenges faced by India in the Indian Ocean and an increasingly volatile neighbourhood, the importance of partnerships and alliances in such a climate of geopolitical dynamism in the region, will go a long way in driving India’s geostrategic ambitions.

In this context, it may be said that the way, in which India and France are making efforts to fulfil their strategic interests in the Indian Ocean, both the states are well placed to take their partnership forward in the maritime domain. Additionally, since France commands considerable sway in Europe’s international political dynamics, it can facilitate greater opportunities for India to cement ties with other like-minded European partners in the Indian Ocean asserting itself as a critical anchor in the evolving geopolitical environment in the Indian Ocean and the wider Indo-Pacific. With the re-election of President Macron, it appears unlikely, that there will be any significant hindrance in the pursuance of their shared interests in the Indian Ocean and the wider Indo-Pacific. Therefore, indeed India and France have elevated their ties to a new level with their strategic engagement in the Indian Ocean.

Source : ORF

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