Since the signing of their strategic partnership agreement in 1998, India and France
relationship has developed comprehensively. The areas of convergence span a number of
issues including political, diplomatic, strategic, economic, defence, space, climate change,
renewable energy resources (International Solar Alliance), etc. In recent times, the purchase
of the Rafale fighter jets has been a singular landmark defence deal. India has also purchased
Scorpene-class submarines from France which are under construction in India. Besides,
people-to-people contact between the two countries are thriving. It is noteworthy that India
has a sense of comfort with France given that there is no historical baggage with this
European country. Furthermore, the domestic politics in India is not divided over France
unlike as seen in the case of Indo-US relations.
As far as maritime cooperation is concerned, India and France conduct bilateral naval exercise called Varuna. The first ever bilateral naval exercise was held in 1983 and in 2003, these were christened as the Varuna series. The scope and complexity of these exercises has also grown and involves complex interoperability. The geographic space of these exercises has been shifting and the 2019 edition exercises were held off Goa and Djibouti.
Since 2015, both sides have been holding bilateral maritime dialogue. In 2018, during President Macron’s visit to India, both leaders reiterated the importance of Indian Ocean. President Macron declared that both countries enjoy unprecedented level of bilateral maritime cooperation. He added that both will have joint monitoring mechanism in the maritime sphere and that the two navies would share intelligence.
The year 2018 has been particularly significant for India and France; both sides announced the joint strategic vision on cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and also signed the Exchanged Agreement on Reciprocal Logistic Support between armed forces. They are also concerned about terrorism, piracy, illegal fishing, and other organised crime. Climate change and the impact it causes in terms of natural disasters, protection of environment and natural resources and disaster management also finds mention in the joint statement.
As maritime nations India and France have extensive interest in sea-based activities. As far as shipping is concerned, both countries concluded the White Shipping Agreement in 2017 and France recognises Certificate of Competence (CoC) from India. There is a robust cooperation in Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) and both sides agreed to enhance cooperation on MDA. Cooperation in hydrography and marine cartography could be other areas of cooperation.
At another level, the ongoing changes in global strategic landscape and the emerging geo-political frameworks, the Indo-Pacific has emerged as the new vista for cooperation and both sides are committed to upholding freedom of navigation and over flight. India’s primary area of focus is the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. The Indian Navy also has interest in the Southern Indian Ocean and access to French naval bases and facilities would be critical for deployment in these waters. In early 2020 Indian Navy deployed a warship and a maritime patrol aircraft to Reunion Islands, a French territory, to conduct surveillance mission with France in Southern Indian Ocean.
For France, the Indo-Pacific is understood as extending from eastern façade of Africa to French Polynesia in the Pacific. There are nearly 1.6 million French nationals living in nearly 9.1 million square kilometres area in the Indo-Pacific. The French Defense Ministry released the Indo-Pacific strategy in 2019 which specifies the goals of securing the Indo- Pacific region, regional stability, safeguarding the environment, encouraging multilateral dialogues on global commons, and armament cooperation and military capacity-building. Emmanuel Lenain, Ambassador of France to India has noted that “for France the Indo-Pacific is a reality. What concerns us is maritime security, illegal threats of naval piracy, maritime tourism, trafficking, tourism and the consequences of climate changes.” India and France also have a lot of scope to work together in the areas of climate change, resource development, marine scientific research and technical cooperation and Blue Economy.
India and France have extensive security, economic and political interests in the maritime sphere. In particular, their convergence is visible in the Indian Ocean Region- a space in which India’s other strategic partners do not have presence comparable to France. The Indian Ocean has always been of high strategic value, and it would only increase as the energy demand of East Asia increases. India’s rise, its growing economy and focus on exports would mean that security of sea lanes would continue to be critical for both countries. In particular, France and India share concern about China’s rise, its energy supply chains that transit through the Indian Ocean, frequent sighting of Chinese submarines in Indian Ocean, its strategic inroads in terms of Belt and Road Initiative.
Both countries are also facing the challenge of limited budgetary resources. Maritime security in any case cannot be managed unilaterally. It necessitates cooperation. This means that countries will have to cooperate more. Maritime cooperation between India and France would be a high priority area for bilateral cooperation.
Ms Amruta Karambelkar is Research Associate, Vivekanada International Foundation, New Delhi.