France, India and the Indo-Pacific: Exploring Alternative Frameworks of Engagement

Paras Ratna
November 3, 2019


The discussions pertaining to Indo-Pacific are mostly fixated on countries such as the US, India, Japan, and Australia- loosely termed as ‘Quad’. Although important, it discounts European powers like France, who not only have significant capabilities but substantial interests in the region. The recently unveiled defence policy in the Indo-Pacific underscores France’s commitment to ‘support and contribute towards building a regional security architecture in the region’. The document categorically lists out countries such as India, Australia, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, New Zealand, Indonesia, and Vietnam with whom France is developing a network of strategic partnerships. 

France’s Indo-Pacific strategy  broadly includes protection of maritime shipping lanes from both traditional and non-traditional threats, strengthening multilateralism, and a commitment towards common goods (environment, climate change, biodiversity, digital technology etc.)  It is important to note that France is an Indo-Pacific power by virtue of it possessing overseas territories in both the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The territories are namely: Mayotte and La Re’ union islands, Scattered Islands, French Southern and Antarctic Territories, New Caledonia, Wallis and Futuna, French Polynesia and Clipperton (Fig 1). According to the French ministry of diplomatic affairs, “Indo-Pacific is home to 93 percent of its exclusive economic zone along with the 1.5 million population and 8,000 soldiers stationed there”.   

Figure 1

Source: Wikimedia commons

Interestingly, France’s conceptualization of Indo-Pacific like New Delhi stretches from the eastern coast of Africa to the western shores of America. Greater convergence on strategic outlook coupled with a shared commitment towards multilateralism, free and open Sea Lines of Communications (SLOCs) make New Delhi and Paris a natural partner in the Indo-Pacific region. The joint strategic vision in the Indian Ocean re-affirms “the multidimensional role of Indo-France strategic partnership in ensuring peace, security, stability and bringing robust economic growth cum prosperity in the Indian Ocean region”. Both countries have been cooperating on strategic issues since 1998- when they became strategic partners. In the aftermath of the Pokharan nuclear test, strategic dialogue helped India to make aware France and through it the EU countries about its security concerns and the subsequent need to introspect their stance on sanctions. 

French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Delhi in 2018 led to the signing of the logistics support agreement. Making France the second only country after the US with whom India has signed such agreement. Army, Navy, and Air force of both countries regularly conduct joint exercises, namely- ‘Shakti, ‘Varuna, and ‘Garuda. As far as the weapon system is concerned, French companies are keenly involved in joint production. Noteworthy systems include ‘Scorpene’ class submarine of which INS Vela was launched recently. Similarly, Rafale has become a household name and was inducted battling domestic opposition. There has been growing collaboration to explore outer space for peaceful purpose. CENS and ISRO have agreed to start the development and production of the constellation of satellites that would allow continuous tracking of ships. On the trade front, the numbers have doubled from about USD 6 billion in 2009 to USD 12.86 billion in 2019. France is the top ten investors in India, with approximately USD 2.8 billion as of March 2018-19. In fact, with Singapore and Mauritius being a platform through which investments are made- it is safe to assume that France is the eighth largest investor. All these points toward an upward trajectory in the Indo-France relations.

On his visit to Australia in 2018, French President Macron proposed a Paris-Delhi-Canberra axis in the Indo-Pacific which reflects the changed geostrategic reality of the region. To quote President Macron “In order to be respected by China as an equal, we (France-India-Australia) needs to organize ourselves”.  France-India-Australia are believed to have a convergence in their values and maritime security interests. France under Emmanuel Macron has adopted a firm approach towards China and could be seen as an attempt to place France at the forefront of the EU. France has been challenging China’s unilateral assertion in the South China Sea. In May, French assault ship Dixmude along with a visit frigate sailed through the disputed Spratly Islands.  The reports of China trying to build naval bases in Southern Pacific has added to the worry of both Australia and France. Recently, a Beijing based company has secured exclusive rights for the development of an entire island of Tulagi in the Solomon Islands, South Pacific. Interestingly, Solomon Island towed the Beijing line on Taiwan and cut diplomatic ties. This was followed by Kiribati-another Pacific littoral. The attempt to carve out an alternative axis of engagement, therefore, could be crucial in keeping the Indo-Pacific region free from ‘hegemony’.

France is stepping up its effort in the Western Indian Ocean Region as well. It recently concluded flagship Business 2 Business event – ‘Ambition Africa aimed at helping French companies to expand their outreach. President Macron visit to countries across the Horn of African countries such as Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Kenya ended with USD 3.4 billion deal with Kenya to work on its transportation network. This quest to develop economic and development partnership is reportedly aimed at checking Chinese influence in the African economies.  Additionally, France and India have joined hand for a third country project in the Western Indian Ocean region, namely the Vanilla islands, which includes Comoros, Madagascar, and Seychelles. The partnership aims to explore sectors such as port development, connectivity, and energy exploration in resource-rich areas around Mozambique channel near Vanilla islands.

Stepping up of strategic posture in the Indo-Pacific by France and the eagerness to collaborate with the like-minded partners such as India and Australia is aimed at bolstering its profile. It appears that Indo-Pacific is slated to encompass multiple security architecture -a web of security partnerships. In addition to the US and China, there exist countries such as India, Australia, Japan, France, and others who have the capability to project material and ideational power in the strategic space. Thereby pointing toward the growing multipolarity in the Indo-Pacific region and the international system at large.

*** Paras Ratna is a research associate at Vision India Foundation, New Delhi. He tweets at @parasratna ***