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EFSAS Commentary

France is fast replacing Russia as India’s primary strategic partner, and this should be music to the ears of the West


India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited France on 13 &14 July where he was invited to be the guest of honour at the Bastille Day Parade, a rare honour reserved for the likes of the President of the United States (US). The then US President Donald Trump had, for example, been accorded the honour in 2017. In fact, the last time the parade had a foreign chief guest was in 2018, when Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was the guest of honour. Modi also received the Grand Cross of Legion of Honour, France’s highest award, joining an illustrious group comprising the likes of Nelson Mandela, King Charles, and former German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Modi’s visit did not have only symbolism; it was packed with substance too. India and France concluded several important agreements during it. As important as these were, the most important take-away from the visit was the impression given by the ceremony and grandeur associated with it that for all intents and purposes the India – France strategic partnership had overtaken the decades-long special relationship that India has had with Russia, and with its predecessor State, the Soviet Union. While India’s relationship with Russia continues to remain special, Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine has left its international reputation and position both literally in tatters, rendering it vulnerable and its future direction unpredictable. New Delhi sees in France a reliable and stable ally in the heart of the West, which through its actions over the last quarter of a century has demonstrated that it possesses the strategic autonomy, the gumption and the will to stand by India when it has needed it the most. As for France, President Emmanuel Macron spelt out his country’s assessment of India when he described it as “a giant in world history, with a decisive role to play in the future, a strategic partner, a friend”.

Relations between India and France have stood the test of time, with France supporting India’s stand on internationally disputed and divisive topics ranging from Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) to nuclear power. France was the first country with veto power to support India’s permanent membership in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). The strategic partnership between the two countries gained momentum since the last decade of the last century. After India’s nuclear tests in 1998, when the wider West imposed sanctions on India France did not join that bandwagon. It was, therefore, not surprising that this was Modi’s fifth visit to France, with President Macron himself having hosted him four times since coming to power in 2017. It only demonstrated the continued importance that the two countries attach to their multi-faceted partnership in which collaboration spans a wide range of sectors including defence, climate change, energy transition, space cooperation, blue economy, multilateralism, and counter-terrorism.

Summing up the results of Modi’s visit, an editorial in The Indian Express daily opined that the visit heralded a new phase in India’s relations with France. The bold vision for this phase outlined by Modi and Macron rested on three pillars – “defending security and sovereignty, deepening cooperation on global issues, and developing stronger engagement between the two peoples. The first involves consequential plans for the co-development and co-production of advanced weapons systems, including submarines and fighter jet engines, deeper engagement in space and other advanced technologies, and regional security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. The second saw the expansion of Franco-Indian collaboration in countering climate change and developing green technologies. The third saw the decision to raise the number of Indian students in France to 30,000 by the end of this decade and give them attractive post-study work visas”.

The core of India’s strategic relationship with France is in the defence sphere. Ahead of his meeting with Macron in Paris, Modi underlined this when he said, “Cooperation in defense is the basic pillar of our relationship. Be it a submarine or a navy ship, we want to work jointly not only for ourselves but other friendly nations too”. Macron, meanwhile, expressed keenness on tightening alliances in the Indo-Pacific against an increasingly assertive China, and his office unveiled a “roadmap” with India for cooperation in the region. He said, “This convergence stretches to our strategic interests. We are defending together the same vision of the Indo-Pacific, an area that must remain open and free from all forms of hegemony”.

Touching upon both the aspects the leaders spoke about, Harsh V. Pant of the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation (ORF) think tank wrote, “An MoU between Mazgon Dockyard Ltd and Naval Group for the construction of three additional submarines under the P75 programme as well as a roadmap for cooperation in advanced aeronautical technologies by supporting the joint development of a combat aircraft engine between Safran and DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organisation) has the potential to redefine the Indo-French defence partnership. India will be setting up a Technical Office of the DRDO at its Embassy in Paris to further accelerate the process of high-tech defence collaborations”. Shairee Malhotra of the ORF added, “A deal for 26 more Rafale fighter jets is in the works, this time for the Indian Navy, along with three Scorpene submarines. There are also talks of jointly developing engines for fighter jets. In this context, France has emerged as a key partner for India’s ‘Make in India’ initiative that aims to indigenise defence production. This security cooperation extends beyond arms deals, and the two countries also conduct regular joint military exercises and institutional exchanges. For France, these lucrative deals make for great business, but seeing eye-to-eye with India on security issues such as stability in the Indo-Pacific region is also relevant. Both countries are resident powers in this region, where a major chunk of the world’s trade passes through and where China’s assertive actions are a cause for concern”.

On the Indo-Pacific, Pant added, “The Indo-Pacific region is a geography of common concern to India and France, so the launch of a roadmap of India-France Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific is likely to make this engagement more operational. Given the interests of both countries in this geography, they are also joining hands with other like-minded nations in carving new platforms. Where France is strengthening a front together with Australia and India, the trio of France, the United Arab Emirates and India are coming together considering their interests in the Arabian Sea. PM Modi’s visit to the UAE while returning from France also has deep implications”.

Reflecting the level of political comfort between the two countries, the Indian and French leaders released a framework document for the relationship for the next 25 years. The roadmap ‘Horizon 2047’ aimed to advance bilateral cooperation over the next 25 years, which will mark 100 years of India’s independence and 50 years of the India-France strategic partnership, and it has the potential to catapult the relationship to even greater heights.

The joint communiqué issued after Modi and Macron’s bilateral meeting on 14 July said that the two leaders had taken stock of the transformation and expansion of the bilateral relationship over the past 25 years in every sector of cooperation. The communiqué informed that “When the two leaders met today, they agreed that ours is a relationship that has been resilient in the darkest storms and bold and ambitious in riding the high tides of opportunities. It is founded on shared values, belief in sovereignty and strategic autonomy, an unwavering commitment to international law and the UN Charter, an abiding faith in multilateralism and a common quest for a stable multipolar world”.

Mohan Kumar, a former Indian Ambassador to France, pointed out on 17 July that “While India has more than 30 strategic partnerships with various countries, it would be misleading to say that they all are of the same significance. Two questions are crucial in this context. One, is it a full-spectrum strategic partnership? Two, has the strategic partnership in question stood the test of time? Measured against these two criteria, the Franco-Indian strategic partnership comes out on top. The Franco-Indian partnership spans the full spectrum of what may be considered strategic — defence, space, climate change, critical technologies and people-to-people ties. More importantly, France has stood by India through thick and thin from the time the strategic partnership was first established in 1998”. Kumar assessed that “France and India are essentially taking long-term bets on each other. These are two middle powers, one in Europe and the other in Asia, with a similar conception of the world. In effect, both countries follow an independent foreign policy and practise strategic autonomy, which they hope will enable them to shape a multipolar world. More crucially, both these powers realise that there is a much better chance of this happening if they work in close concert”.

Harsh V. Pant of the ORF sought to paint the broader picture around Modi’s recent high-profile visit to the US, and now to France, when he wrote, “This is a moment of transformational change in the global order, with growing uncertainty about the future. To navigate this uncertain environment, new partnerships and new platforms are taking shape as nations struggle to make sense of the world around them. At a time like this, India has become the centre of attraction of the world. Today, all major powers of the world want to have a robust partnership with India”. On India – France relations specifically, he wrote, “The best thing about Indo-French relations is that both countries have shown a willingness to adapt this friendship to the 21st century. The similar approach of Prime Minister Modi and President Macron on many global issues confirms this. Both leaders attach great importance to strategic autonomy in any partnership. Despite being a member of NATO, France showed the same practical attitude towards Russia as India did. France’s often immediate support for important initiatives of India also shows the strength of the bilateral partnership”.

As is the case with India’s strategic partnership with Russia, defence has traditionally been the strongest pillar of the partnership with France. France is India’s second largest arms supplier after Russia, and Russia’s depleting military arsenal due to the Ukraine conflict makes it likely for this cooperation to only intensify. As Pant put it, “the Russia-Ukraine war has forced India to reconsider its excessive strategic dependence on one nation. Therefore, India is focusing on expanding defence partnerships with key countries as well as becoming self-sufficient in defence production. In this, countries like France become vital; they are not only ready to provide state-of-the-art defence equipment, but also encourage co-production and co-development by sharing their technology”.

The editorial of The Indian Express alluded to afore emphasized that a consequential shift in India’s great power relations was taking place today. It argued that “Paris has replaced Moscow as India’s most trusted partner over the last 25 years. Whether it was the refusal to punish Delhi in the wake of the 1998 nuclear tests or blocking China from considering the Kashmir question on the United Nations Security Council agenda after India changed the province’s territorial status quo in August 2019, Paris proved to be the most valuable and steadfast ally of India. Although Delhi continues to enjoy a stable relationship with Moscow, two factors are casting a shadow over Indo-Russian ties. One is Russia’s difficult internal and external situation after its invasion of Ukraine, and the other is its tighter embrace of China”. The editorial concluded that “For all practical purposes, then, France has replaced Russia as the sheet anchor of India’s ‘strategic autonomy’”, and that “India is right to bet on the French connection to maintain its room for manoeuvre in the unfolding era of turbulence in great power relations”.

For the US-led Western democracies, France’s close embrace of India, and vice versa, in the midst of the war in Ukraine and at a juncture when an increasingly arrogant and aggressive dragon is threatening to plunge the Indo-Pacific, and much of the rest of Asia, into turmoil, cannot but be a desirable development.