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Prime Minister Narenda Modi and French President Emmanuel Macron during a meeting in Paris on May 4, 2022

India and France in the Indo-Pacific: A Marriage of Autonomies

Among the most important partnerships that India has built with major powers, the one with France is brimming with potential but hardly given the highlight it deserves. In a multipolar world order, Delhi seeks partners of strategic convergence, but one that does not intrude into India’s practice of strategic autonomy. In this quest, France is an important stop, with its own penchant for autonomy, even while being a significant member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Strategic partners since 1998, India and France have maintained a rather robust and stable relationship. It is yet to occupy the limelight that India’s relationship with the United States or Russia does and perhaps this underrated status gives room for the political leadership and the diplomatic core on both ends, to work on the deliverables bereft of the baggage of undue expectations. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent meeting with the newly re-elected President Emmanuel Macron provided an opportunity to reassess the strategic import of India-France partnership, at a time when the Ukraine crisis is rattling the European security order, and its implications for Indo-Pacific geopolitics is being acutely debated.

More than any other time, it is important for both countries to push ahead the narrative that divergence over response to the Ukraine crisis will not derail India’s growing convergence with European countries over management of the Indo-Pacific. How Delhi and Paris translate their broad based desire for peace, stability and prosperity in the region and support commitments  for a free, rules based Indo-Pacific and how it can be integrated into the Quad based initiatives for the region will be the primary task for policymakers on both sides. The two nations aim to expand their collaboration in defence, security, trade, investment, connectivity, health, and sustainability in the Indo-Pacific. Moreover, how India engages with France cannot be delinked from India’s ties with the European Union (EU), as Delhi and Brussels are developing an India-EU connectivity partnership, an India-EU Trade and Technology Council, plus planning to restart negotiations on an India-EU Agreement on Trade and Investment. As India continues to work towards generating new associations and partnership frameworks between itself and states of the European Union in order to enhance its own interoperability and diplomatic clout in the Indo-Pacific region; the strong bonhomie between India and France strikes the right chord. India’s relationship with France may establish the latter as a linchpin to India’s greater engagement and influence within the European Union. This is particularly important as France holds the Presidency of the EU for the first six months of 2022.

In areas of defence, the two states recalled the efficiency of the joint exercises between the two nations; namely, Shakti, Varuna, Pegase, Desert knight and Garuda and promised greater interaction between the defence forces of the two nations to enhance interoperability.  Among others, the India-France defence trade has resulted in India procuring significant defence equipment such as the Scorpene submarines, and the Rafale fighter jets. India is also looking forward to France providing Safran aircraft engines and make independent propulsion submarines to utilise already existing manufacturing lines at the naval dockyards in Mumbai. Moreover, Dassault (France) is in contention for supply of 26 Rafale M fighters to India for the latter’s indigenously built INS Vikrant. The two nations are in talks to provide four Rafale-M on lease for purposes of training before the carrier is officially launched on 15 August 2022,   testifying the long-standing relationship between the two nations in the maritime domain.

France contends that in order to get the best out of its relationship with India; the nation needs to engage in “creative ways” to encouraging a “self-reliant” India in its efforts to expand its technological, manufacturing and export competence including an increase in industry to industry partnership. India and France are also expanding their collaboration in the space sector by engaging in a ‘Bilateral Strategic Dialogue on Space Issues’. The first dialogue on the same shall be conducted in 2022. The two countries are aiming on working towards increased securitization of the cyber domain in order to develop a ‘peaceful, secure and open cyberspace.’ India and France are collaborating with C-DAC and ATOS for the same. The two nations support a ‘secure and sovereign’ 5G/6G network architecture for telecommunication systems. Another key policy front of convergence is also in ensuring a more ‘climate responsive Indo-Pacific’. France is increasingly realising the geopolitical heft of the Indo-Pacific region and India’s role and participation in the same. Indicating France’s focus on the region for the European Union’s strategic outlook, the first Indo-Pacific Ministerial Forum for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific was held in February 2022 in Paris.

What really distinguishes India-France partnership, is the mutual appreciation for the practice of strategic autonomy in their respective foreign policies. France despite being a member of NATO has a history of exuding its own independent agency vis-à-vis the United States. Given India’s own sense of international partnerships and alignments, Delhi and Paris can together bring a sense of pragmatism in the Indo-Pacific, sans expectations to stick to “either you are with us, or against us” mentality. The way Delhi and Paris looks at partnerships and engagements could provide the way forward for dealing with the complex geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific that requires navigating areas of competition, cooperation, and confrontation.

India and France see each other as strategic partners of equal in the Indo-Pacific region, each aiming to bring their own sets of toolkit into the game, and creating traction out of mutuality. Such an approach helps avoid the unwarranted question of ‘whether India needs France more, or France needs India more’ in the Indo-Pacific. An India-France partnership in the region is therefore a convergence of autonomies and independent nations respectful of each other’s sovereign national interests. India and France have a long history of defence, economic and diplomatic cooperation with one another which is a clear reflection of a growing positive trajectory. As the shifts in power within the Indo-Pacific favours multipolarity over dominance of two powers or one, convergence and association between India and France becomes an imperative to ensure greater regional stability. Unlike with many other major powers, India’s relationship with France is not yet burdened with undue expectations, and this goldilocks position should be leveraged not only for the sake of the bilateral relationship, but for the greater good of the Indo-Pacific.

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