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France banks on India as key Indo-Pacific partner

February 21, 2022

France is set to host a major Indo-Pacific forum on Tuesday as it hopes to strengthen ties with Delhi to counter China's growing influence in the region.

From September 2020 to April 2021, the nuclear attack submarine Emeraude was deployed in the Indo-Pacific, allowing France to reaffirm its interest in this strategic area
France is seeking new partners in the Indo-Pacific regionImage: Pierre-Luc Hamelin/Marine Nationale/Defense/abaca/picture alliance

France will be rolling out the red carpet in Paris for a one-day Indo-Pacific forum on Tuesday where foreign ministers from EU member states will meet foreign ministers from across the Indian and Pacific Ocean regions.

It's the first major event since the EU released its Indo-Pacific strategy last year, and the agenda is set to include security and defense topics, digital and connectivity issues and global challenges such as climate change.

"I think the EU as a whole now recognizes that the Indo-Pacific is important and that we collectively have strong interests in that region," Christophe Penot, French ambassador to the Indo-Pacific, told DW.

"Whether it's security challenges, protection of commercial shipping lanes, trade, climate change or protection of biodiversity and oceans — these are major issues for us. What happens in the Indo-Pacific clearly has a strong influence on our future, our prosperity and our security," Penot said.

India, a pivotal partner

France has made the Indo-Pacific one of the priorities of its current six-month EU presidency. The country is the biggest and most active European player in the region with its overseas territories, military personnel and around 1.5 million French citizens living there.

Ever since Australia, another major Indo-Pacific actor, pulled the plug on a multibillion-dollar submarine deal with France last September and entered a new security alliance with the US and the UK, Paris has been ramping up other geopolitical partnerships in the region.

"The loss of the submarine deal forced France to get some clarity and recalibrate its Indo-Pacific policy," said Antoine Bondaz, a research fellow with the Strategic Research Foundation in Paris. "Australia, along with India and Japan, was one of the three strategic partners with France in the region," he added.

"But now Australia is out of the picture, at least for the foreseeable future with ties with France at an all-time low. That means today, India is effectively the key partner for France in the Indo-Pacific."

A growing threat in India's backyard

For India, which has long confronted China along its contested Himalayan land border, Beijing's growing footprint in the Indian Ocean is a rising concern. The maritime area is a key energy and trade corridor where Delhi has long enjoyed regional power status.

An Indian army convoy heads along the Srinagar-Ladakh highway following the arrest of a Chinese soldier in India close to the Chinese border in Kashmir
Tensions at India's landborder with China remain highImage: Dar Yasin/AP/picture alliance

China has for years been building ports, road and rail links and other infrastructure in Sri Lanka and Myanmar, edging closer to the Indian coast. Though many of them are civil projects, analysts have pointed out that the recipient countries are increasingly falling under Chinese debt and influence. Beijing has also stepped up its engagement in the Maldives, Seychelles, Mauritius and Bangladesh.

India's concerns about China's steadily increasing influence in the region are shared by France.

Speaking last year in the French parliament, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian spoke of China's "hegemonic aims and growing aggressiveness" and said France wanted to work with all actors and countries of the Indo-Pacific on the construction of an "alternative model to the Chinese model," respecting the sovereignty of its partners.

"It is a question of countering China's strategy, which is often based on a facade of multilateralism and consists of trapping each of the states in this region in an asymmetrical face-off," the French foreign minister added.

Close cooperation in the Indian Ocean

Increasingly squeezed in the Indian Ocean, India has found itself with few options but to shed its traditional wariness in engaging with the West and accelerate its naval engagement with other countries seeking to counter China.

Joint manouvers by China, Russia and Iran in the Indian Ocean in January
China joined Russia and Iran in conducting manouvers in JanuaryImage: Iranian Army/AFP

That has meant forging maritime partnerships with major Indo-Pacific actors, the US, Japan and Australia — and especially France with which India has maintained a relationship that stretches back decades, as well as a strategic partnership. It's marked by close civil nuclear cooperation and defense ties, reinforced by Delhi's purchase of 36 French Rafale fighter jets.

The two have stepped up collaboration in the Indian Ocean, signing agreements that give reciprocal access to each other's military facilities and conduct maritime security operations and annual joint naval drills. France is the only non-neighboring country with which India conducts coordinated patrols, an indication of its level of trust in France. 

"India and France have had a longstanding relationship in the Indian Ocean region in a way that India does not enjoy with anybody else," Darshana Baruah, who heads the Indian Ocean Initiative at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said.

"Whether it's on defense, whether it's on understanding the importance of the geography, their interests are similar in keeping the region multipolar."

'A natural ally'

Harsh Pant, director and head of the Strategic Studies Program at the Observer Research Foundation in Delhi said France was also accepted in India as a close partner. 

"Both India and France speak a similar language of 'strategic autonomy,' there is convergence on many issues at the global level, both don't want to be seen working under pressure, especially from the US," he said. "All these factors make France a natural ally."

For India, partnering with countries like France has tangible benefits.

"At the regional level, when it comes to the Indo-Pacific, India alone cannot take on the behemoth that is China, so it needs as many like-minded strategic partners as necessary invested in the region," said Pant. 

"That's why India is putting a lot of effort into developing partnerships with European countries," Pant said. "It gives India greater diplomatic clout and allows a semblance of stability in an otherwise very volatile region."

Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh shaking hands with his French counterpart Florence Parly in New Delhi in December last year
French Defense Minister Parly visited her Indian counterpart Singh in DecemberImage: Manish Swarup/AP Photo/picture alliance

Europe rethinks its India ties

India isn't the only one rethinking the way it engages with the West amid China's growing economic and geopolitical footprint.

Garima Mohan, a fellow in the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund, said the EU, one of India's biggest trade and investment partners had also shifted its approach towards the South Asian country in recent years — no longer viewing it purely through a trade lens but increasingly through a strategic one that can help the bloc counter China's influence in Asia and beyond.

Mohan pointed out that conversations between India and the EU had broadened to include a maritime security dialogue, artificial intelligence, joint naval exercises, counterterrorism, agreements on digital infrastructure and connectivity as well as climate change and health.

"The challenges in the Indian Ocean are so huge. India doesn't have the resources to counter Chinese economic, political and diplomatic influence alone, which is where European partners can be useful," she said.

"European countries have money, they have heft, they have technological heft, and they can help in developing India's domestic as well as naval capabilities which are also necessary in dealing with the China challenge."

Edited by: Alex Berry