India-France Ties Strengthened by Indo-Pacific

Harsh V Pant and Thibault Fournol

PM Modi’s visit to France further strengthened India-France ties, with major defence announcements and cooperation in various domains.

Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi’s visit to France last week stands as a testimony to the continued strengthening of India-France ties at a time of global turbulence. Among 6,300 members of the French Armed Forces participating in the Bastille Day parade was a contingent of 241 soldiers from the three services of the Indian Armed Forces marching on the Champs-Élysées, commemorating the 140,000 Indian soldiers who served in France and Belgium during World War I. PM Modi was also conferred with the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour, the highest civilian and military distinction in France.

Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi’s visit to France last week stands as a testimony to the continued strengthening of India-France ties at a time of global turbulence. Among 6,300 members of the French Armed Forces participating in the Bastille Day parade was a contingent of 241 soldiers from the three services of the Indian Armed Forces marching on the Champs-Élysées, commemorating the 140,000 Indian soldiers who served in France and Belgium during World War I. PM Modi was also conferred with the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour, the highest civilian and military distinction in France.

Major defence announcements during the visit reaffirmed the central role of defence cooperation in India-France relations. But at a time when both countries are celebrating the 25th anniversary of their strategic partnership, the lasting importance of defence cooperation should not overshadow the significant progress made in other domains — from six decades of space cooperation to the civil nuclear, economy, culture, education and people-to-people contacts.

In the field of the climate crisis, the two countries signed in October 2022 a road map on green hydrogen to bring together the French and Indian hydrogen ecosystems. The recent visit also saw announcements pertaining to the use of UPI in France, and the awarding of five-year-long post-study Schengen visas for Indian students doing a master’s degree in France.

In fact, the trip not only strengthened a bilateral relationship that had been constantly reinforced in recent years, but also reaffirmed the centrality of India in France’s strategic imagining of the Indo-Pacific. The adherence of both Delhi and Paris to the Indo-Pacific concept constitutes the mainstay of the cooperation between the two countries.

The establishment of a ministerial-level defence dialogue in 2018 as well as a strategic space dialogue in 2023 is symptomatic of the tangible strengthening of the bilateral relationship, shaped by a larger rapprochement, resulting from deep convergences in the Indo-Pacific region. These convergences are not only political (regarding China) and conceptual (a shared ambition of strategic autonomy, a belief in a multipolar world shaped by reformed and effective multilateralism), but, at its foundation, geographical.

While the Indo-Pacific stops at New Zealand for Germany and starts on the western shores of India for the US and Australia, India and France share an extensive definition of the concept, from the East coast of Africa to the West coast of the Americas.

This common understanding of the geographical contours of the Indo-Pacific is not insignificant. It encourages – through a shared understanding of its geography and de facto stakeholders – the establishment of multi-dimensional bilateral cooperation projects in various areas such as counter-terrorism, piracy, organised crime, illegal fishing, and environmental security. This is particularly the case for maritime security and naval cooperation, which has emerged as one of the most promising domains of cooperation between the two countries in recent years.

The joint exercise Varuna organised between the two navies since 1993 led to joint patrols in the Indian Ocean, the first of which was held in 2019 in the Southern Indian Ocean, with the deployment by the Indian Navy of P-81 aircraft from La Réunion. A second patrol was held in May 2022, four years after a logistics support agreement was inked in March 2018, giving the Indian Navy access to the military base of La Réunion.

Beyond naval cooperation, the rising importance of maritime security also took shape through the India-led Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI) launched in November 2019, in which Paris held the responsibility of one of the seven pillars (marine resources). More significantly, in February 2022, the two countries signed a road map on the blue economy and ocean governance, aiming at setting up a multi-sectoral partnership around a common vision of ocean governance based on the rule of law, sustainable growth, infrastructure and science and technology.

If these developments underscore the commitment of India and France to joint collaboration on regional issues of concern, the relationship is moving from purely bilateral to regional and global in nature. The launching of the International Solar Alliance by the two countries in November 2015 was already an example of the emerging globalisation of a relationship that was, until then, primarily bilateral. The 2022 call for an Indo-Pacific Parks Partnership to provide regional capacity-building for sustainable management of protected areas was also a step in that direction.

At the Indo-Pacific level, while the second pillar of the just-released road map to 2047 aims to provide concrete solutions to make the Indo-Pacific a region of stability and sustainable development, multilateral mechanisms where both France and India participate – such as the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) – offer ideal platforms through which the two countries can jointly contribute to regional security.

The same approach must now configure existing trilateral formats between the two countries (India-France-Australia since 2020 and the newly established India-France-UAE) and guide the creation of other platforms with like-minded nations. The Indo-French road map for the Indo-Pacific inked during Modi’s visit to Paris will need to turn ambitions into deliverable concrete outcomes for the region as a whole.

Modi’s visit has charted an ambitious course for India and France for the next few decades. It is befitting a relationship that has been very effective in constantly configuring itself to the realities of an ever-evolving international milieu. It is the operationalisation of this agenda that will now demand serious attention of the policymakers, both in Paris and New Delhi.

The article was first published in Hindustan Times as Indo-Pacific lies at the core of India-France ties on July 17, 2023.

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Authors

  • Samprikta Banerjee
  • IMPRI

    IMPRI, a startup research think tank, is a platform for pro-active, independent, non-partisan and policy-based research. It contributes to debates and deliberations for action-based solutions to a host of strategic issues. IMPRI is committed to democracy, mobilization and community building.

  • Harsh V Pant

    Professor of International Relations at King’s College London and Director of Research at Observer Research Foundation (ORF), New Delhi.