The developing trajectory of Indo-French ties emanates from considerable alignments at a policy level.
As the first batch of the Rafale fighter jets perched down on the tarmac at the Ambala Air Force base, it evoked a sense of national euphoria not seen in recent memory as far as any kind of military acquisition by India is concerned. The euphoria, mostly generated by a persistent and heightened media coverage was not just because of what the Rafale brings to the table in terms of augmenting India’s air power, which it does, but essentially because the induction happened in the backdrop of an increasingly volatile geo-strategic environment. To specify, the clashes at Galwan valley in June 2020 where 20 Indian soldiers lost their lives, marked a turning point in the relationship between India and China. This was echoed in the words of the late General Bipin Rawat, India’s first Chief of Defence Staff, who had stated the fact publicly that it was China and not Pakistan that is India’s biggest enemy today. Such a scenario that entails reworking of strategic thinking as well as action-to deal with new challenges, has brought the indispensability of time tested and old partners back to the fore. And one such partner is the Mediterranean country of France.
HISTORICAL BACKGROUND AND MILITARY TIES
The road to strategic ties was taken during the days of the Cold War. Notwithstanding the fact that the Soviet Union was India’s prime security and diplomatic partner, France added a different dynamic by striving to balance India’s excessive dependence on Soviet Union. Apart from the attractiveness of India as a market for export, France also appreciated and identified with the strategic disposition of India in the larger South Asian region. For instance, France had leaned towards India’s side during the India-Pakistan War of 1971. This happened despite the fact that the United States was actively in Pakistan’s support during the war. Not limited to the dynamics of that particular conflict, France visibly traded on a relatively independent course on several matters like nuclear technology, space and defence cooperation with India.
A definitive turning point in the ties was witnessed in the late 1990s. With the USSR becoming history, French President Jacques Chirac was determined on behalf of France to fill the vacuum and stated a “strategic partnership” between the two countries. France strongly advocated on the need to remedy India’s exclusion from the global nuclear order. This resonated very strongly with the Indian administration. The integrity of such a stand came to the fore when post the “Pokhran-II” nuclear tests, the Atal Behari Vajpayee-led NDA government at the Centre had to face international criticisms, condemnation and sanctions. But France not only refrained from criticizing the action but instead increased its strategic engagement with India. At a time when India had become a nuclear pariah, such a stand by France resounded solidly across and among the establishment in India and in an emotional plane, lingers on till this day.
21ST CENTURY AND STRATEGIC PARTNERSHIP
The signing of the strategic partnership agreement in 1998 catapulted Indo-France relations to new heights and a new plane. It set the ball rolling for the culmination and progression of this relationship in the 21st century with its set of challenges and realities. The strategic partnership facilitated high-level meetings between the National Security Advisor to the Indian Prime Minister and the diplomatic advisor to France’s President. Talking about the renewed impetus France is putting onto Asia, as is being stated in the French Defence White Paper of 2008-09, Gireesh (2020) comments that France’s appreciation of the future scenario of Asia is an extremely important step, and it is quite apparent in its diplomatic ventures in the region, especially in its outreach to India.
POLICY CONVERGENCE, DEFENCE DEALS, INDO-PACIFIC
The developing trajectory of Indo-French ties emanates from considerable alignments at a policy level and is not merely the result of some officialese surrounding deliberations around Europe’s “strategic autonomy” or India’s commitment to diversify its supplies of military equipment. To appraise with an instance, the visit to India by French President Emmanuel Macron in 2018 concurrently also saw the announcement of the “Joint Strategic Vision of India-France Cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region”.
Such a long-standing alignment of outlook has had a positive bearing, leading to the successful execution of significant defence deals, like the Inter-Governmental agreement for the purchase of 36 Rafale fighter jets in 2016, between the two countries. The strengthening of the strategic relationship has seen a positive spillover effect onto other areas as well. This gets apparent by the fact where fresh after his re-election in April 2022, President Macron meets the first head of state in Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
COOPERATION ON NON-TRADITIONAL SECURITY THREATS
Non-traditional threats are much more intimidating than the traditional ones as they require not only outward response in order to manage their external dimension and cultivate international cooperation, but also internal response with an open outlook to execute socioeconomic and political reforms (Srikanth 2014: 64). India and France face a number of non-traditional security threats and have engaged collectively to counter and strategize against them. India and France have consistently condemned terrorism and have resolved to work together for adoption of the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism (CCIT) in the UN.
In terms of climate change and energy security, the two actors have decided to establish the period of 2021-2022 as the Indo-French Year of the Environment based on five main themes: environmental protection, climate change, biodiversity conservation, sustainable urban development and the development of renewable energies and energy efficiency. Their commitment towards climate change has been evident through their pioneer partnership in the International Solar Alliance (ISA), primary objective of the alliance is to work for the efficient consumption of solar energy to reduce dependence on fossil fuels.
France’s and India’s interest in securing the now booming Indo-Pacific region finds the sharpest expression in the Western Indian Ocean. This is seen evidently with the establishment of France’s military presence in Abu Dhabi and Djibouti, which gives the security actor critical access to two major chokepoints, the Strait of Hormuz (connecting the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Oman and Arabian Sea) and the Bab-el-Mandeb (connecting the Gulf of Aden with the Red Sea and the Suez Canal), which comes as a corollary to Chinese assertion and wolf-warrior diplomacy in the region (Rajamohan and Baruah 2018). In addition, French military personnel have been stationed in the Réunion Island continually contributing to training, capacity building, and patrolling for surveillance in the Southwest Indian Ocean. The Indo-Pacific in such an environment offers the long-missing regional anchor to the strategic partnership between India and France.
MARITIME COOPERATION, JOINT EXERCISES
Cooperation in the maritime domain is increasingly becoming a vital part of the strategic equation between both countries. The political leadership in both nations have expressed specific interest in enhancing the security and safety of the IOR. Both countries also have a history of productive cooperation and interactions between their respective navies. The maiden naval bilateral between India and France was held in 1983, and eventually it was christened as “Varuna” in 2001. The 19th edition of the “Varuna” bilateral exercises was held in April 2019 in the Arabian Sea. It was an exercise of considerable proportions represented by frontline warships, submarines, aircraft carrier and other combat platforms of both the navies.
In recent years in particular, France has not only been apprehensive of the Chinese provocation of European countries pushing them towards adopting a “One-China” policy with no exception, but also of China’s assault on Hong Kong’s independence as well as China’s assertion of a wolf warrior diplomacy across its foreign policy. According to the European Commissions’ report on “EU-China: A Strategic Outlook” (March 2019), the member states of the EU has come to perceive China as a “systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance” (European Commission 2019). This perception is broadly shaped by not only China’s alarming nationalist narrative and its growing support towards the populist parties of Europe, but also Europe’s frustration owing to its inability to access Chinese markets.
India has welcomed EU’s Indo Pacific strategy and is looking forward to the French presidency of the European Union in the first half of 2022 as an opportunity to give further shape to EU’s engagement in the Indo Pacific region, including in security, connectivity, sustainability and economic development. Subsequently, China’s powerful presence in the Indo-Pacific region has been increasing since 2008, which has long been perceived as a threat in the Indian Ocean backyard. China’s hegemonic activities have been widely seen as the most important element in reshaping the region’s security dynamic. Littoral states have been sceptical including India as well as Australia, which like France and the United States, has to cope with security issues both in the Pacific and the Indian Ocean.
With the steady increase of the strategic consequence of the Indian Ocean and it’s extended maritime zones, nations across the globe are devising fresh policies to recalibrate and strengthen their scope in the region. Though preceded by a long history of partnerships, recent ventures by many countries in the region are to a large extent in response to China’s increasing clout and aggressiveness. Across this global security landscape, France and India have increasingly engaged on the security environment, including current developments and long-term challenges in the Indo-Pacific region, the situation in Southeast Asia, West Asia, Afghanistan and Africa while also focusing on the non-traditional aspect of security partnership. With the given initiatives, it remains imperative for the two sides to continue pursuing these objectives through enhanced cooperation at the bilateral as well as multilateral level, deepening engagement in regional institutions and forums along with jointly working with and assisting other countries in the Indo Pacific region.
Manish Barma & Shreya Sinha are doctoral candidates at Centre for European Studies, School of International Studies, JNU.