Prime Minister since 2014, Narendra Modi has impressed many observers with his pro-active foreign policy. Main news media mainly focus on the Modi administration’s diplomatic engagement with great powers, such as the United States, or with fast developping powers, as China. Whereas when the relations with European powers are under the journalistic spotlights, almost only economic and trade issues are discussed.
Since 1998, the Franco-Indian relationship has become increasingly strategic. After years of cordial relations, even throughout the Cold War, the strategic dialogue between India and France is now well developed, with the annual joint naval military exercises, named Varuna, as an example. Prime Minister Modi and French President Hollande met earlier this spring, and succeeded in reaffirming Franco-Indian security, energy and economic partnership. Both leaders should now recognize that their countries have somewhat close strategic interests in the Indian Ocean region, and thus it is in this region that their cooperation has the best chances of reaching its full potential.
France is an Indian Ocean power, with a medium military presence but a vast exclusive economic zone, as well as an important influence in the southwestern Indian Ocean. La Reunion and Mayotte make for about one million French citizens, and its combined EEZ in the Indian Ocean represents more than 2.6 million km². This could be easily forgotten by foreign observers, but has its importance to understand France’s position in the zone.
Taking part to the region’s stability
France reaffirmed its interest in helping to preserve stability in the Indian Ocean in the 2013 White Paper, which qualifies the Indian Ocean as a major region for international trade, “at the heart of world strategic challenges.”, and thus willing to help India in its economic growth. A help from » industrialized democraties » that India seeks to « pursue India’s economic interests ». France maintains air, ground and naval military forces in the Persian Gulf region, in Abu Dhabi and Djibouti. Paris recognizes that the equilibrium of the region could only be effectively maintained once India has revealed itself as a more powerful naval actor, with greater ability of projection and exterior operations. The annual naval exercises between the two countries are not only made to sustain military diplomacy, but also to help India to build its regional military capacity.
These regular training exercises have gained in complexity, involving nuclear powered submarines and aircraft carriers. Through such joint exercises, both countries have increased their interoperability and proficiency. French weapons sales to India are also proficient. India bought Scorpene class submarines, naval surface-to-air missile systems and, more recently, 36 Rafale fighters that could play an important maritime strike role. This can clearly improve India’s naval capacity. If their cooperation keeps going this way, we can expect joint maritime and littoral surveillance, amphibious Special Forces training, and maybe in intelligence and coordinate regional strategies for the years to come.
The future of the cooperation
“The Persian Gulf is likely to become a region of increased military competition in the future”, explains Iskander Rehman. With the mutating situation In the Middle East, Paris and New Delhi have growing doubts over the ability of the Washington to regulate the increasing violence ravaging the region. In that situation, France and India could coordinate their policies to watch over the region. Developing a more institutionalized strategic dialogue between India and France to help insure Persian Gulf security might be a good intent.
Paris and New Delhi should seek to enhance their cooperation in maritime domain and intelligence gathering. In the Indo-Pacific region, with the territorial and influence disputes in the Sea of China, in which the two great powers of China and the U.S. confronts, among others, the India-France partnership could play a role. The disputes for Southeast archipelagic region are fought by “earning” islands and gathering intelligence. China is progressively spreading its influence and surveillance ability through the whole region, and even the Indian Ocean, with many means, and notably with the String of Pearls, increasing its power and control over regional activities. In that case, France and India have to counter China from spreading too far, develop their own littoral intelligence and security devices, and provide the surrounding countries with them, thus establishing a secure maritime perimeter.
France and India’s diplomacy and intelligence services have the clear objective to achieve stronger cooperation on the challenging “dual-use infrastructure” in Eastern Africa and the Southwestern Indian Ocean. In order to win this “competition”, they will have to use Modi government’s approach in the Indian Ocean. By using different economic and developmental tools, India could continue to win over small seaside states and isles. However, Modi’s government must stay aware that these states can also play with greater powers against one another.