India and France are celebrating 20 years of partnership. The accord signed in 1998 by then French President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee is one of the oldest “strategic partnerships” that this country has. The pact was signed during President Chirac’s visit to India: “Both countries share a perspective that the new world order has to be a genuine multipolar world order. Our bilateral relationship is poised to grow in the coming months in a multi-faceted manner,” Mr Chirac had declared.
Over the last two decades, the partnership has steadily grown — no major political differences have darkened the sky between Paris and New Delhi. France has been constantly supportive of India, particularly so for a permanent seat for India in the UN Security Council, and has shown comprehension for India’s nuclear policy. Though in recent years the term “strategic partnership” has been devalued by the multiplication of such accords, in the Indo-French case, the 1998 momentum has been regularly sustained by new initiatives.
One is of course the Rs 59,000-crore deal for 36 Rafale fighters in September 2016; it will soon prove to be a game-changer, partly due to the offset clauses forcing France to reinvest in India 50 per cent of the total deal’s amount, but also for India’s western and northern fronts. China realises this, and its recent efforts to reinforce its air defence of the Western Theatre Command, particularly on the Tibetan plateau, is definitely linked to the forthcoming arrival of the Rafale in India, expected in 2019.
In a media interview in October 2017, French defence minister Florence Parly had declared India was France’s major strategic partner in Asia. She noted that the relationship was “the fruit of a long, shared history, grounded in an unshakeable trust. We have always worked alongside India, in good times but also at difficult moments,” she said, adding: “Our partnership is continuing to develop even more, including in very sensitive areas.”
These “sensitive” areas make all the difference. New Delhi knows it needs to diversify its diplomatic relations if it wants to play a major role in the world. An example: for India’s engagement in the Indo-Pacific region, France could also be a crucial partner.
In a Carnegie India research paper, C. Raja Mohan and Darshana M. Baruah had written: “Faced with a growing geopolitical turbulence and more aggressive maritime manoeuvring, India and France are eager to expand their strategic engagement in the Indo-Pacific.” The authors elaborated: “As maritime security acquires greater salience in India’s foreign policy, New Delhi is increasingly looking to leverage its strategic partnerships, particularly with Paris. Although India and France have joined forces on a number of issues since 1998, regional cooperation in the Indo-Pacific has never risen to the top of the agenda. However, this may be about to change.”
The study cited a series of high-level discussions between New Delhi and Paris that focused on the prospects of a stronger maritime security partnership: “Central to the recent discussions has been the creation of a framework for strategic coordination in the Indo-Pacific. …As they explore their bilateral cooperation on regional security, the Indo-Pacific offers ample potential for such an enterprise.”
A high point of French President Emmanuel Macron’s coming visit could be a logistics accord allowing India access to the strategically important French base in the Reunion Islands near Madagascar. Another possibility is the opening of French facilities in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, where India’s rival China already has a military base. This is part of India’s new maritime strategy.
Interestingly, another author, Emanuele Scimia, wrote in the Asian Times about a new alliance emerging in the region. He cited the French Jeanne d’Arc’s naval task force, heading for East Asia and the South Pacific to hold exercises with Britain’s Royal Navy. Though the objective of the five-month deployment is improvement of maritime cooperation between their navies, in reality, said Mr Scimia, “it can be read as a new initiative by the two European countries to support the United States in its freedom of navigation operations in the region against China’s military activism”.
The task group consists of the Mistral-class helicopter assault ship Dixmude and the La Fayette-class frigate Surcouf. Mr Scimia further wrote: “It is worth noting that the French-led task force will dock in countries at odds with China. Indeed Indonesia, Australia and Vietnam question Beijing’s claims to the South,” before concluding: “The prospective Quadrilateral (Quad) alliance among the United States, India, Japan and Australia to counter China’s military assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific space could be extended to France and Britain.”
Does this mean a Quad + Two? India and France will probably prefer the bilateral way to start with.
Incidentally, in December 1954, a previous avatar of the Dixmude arrived in Mumbai to deliver 20 aircraft with ammunition: “Dixmude will stop at Bombay only for five days. In view of large quantities on board and the short time available for offloading, the French air ministry has requested for facilities, as a special case, to unload explosives at the jetty instead of at an anchor outside the harbour,” wrote the then Indian ambassador in Paris.
Four years later, 22 Mystere and 13 Ouragan (“Toofanis”) were delivered again by the same Dixmude.