Anchored in Autonomy: The Indo-French Strategic Partnership at 25

The Indo-French partnership not only reinforces the connections between the Indo-Pacific and the Mediterranean but also enhances regional stability and security.
Keywords: Strategic, Autonomy, Alliance, NATO, France, Partnerhsip, Indo-Pacific, Indian Ocean, Development, Defence, Maritime, China
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Autonomy in strategic outlook has become an increasingly rare sight in today’s global affairs. Political alignment and its consequential constraints have contributed to the stagnation of the global economy. Tremors of the war in Europe and threats of destabilisation in Asia are being felt across the continents. Amid this, countries have discovered opportunities to work together, toward attaining shared interests, without having to bear the full weight of alignment.

India and France have entered the 25th year of the establishment of their strategic partnership (1998). This partnership has grown significantly over the past several years, encompassing a boost in trade and economic relations, and also in defence and security cooperation.

Hardware and Industry

To become the fourth strongest military force in the world (behind the USA, Russia, and China) as per the Global Firepower Index, India required itself to commit to the goal of defence modernisation and endure the costs. Earlier years saw a great deal of reliance on the import of military platforms and equipment, due to the under-developed state of the national military-industrial capacity. France, Israel, and Russia (and earlier the Soviet Union), among others, provided India with the hardware it required to defend itself against security threats.

Over the past decade, India and France have significantly strengthened their defense partnership. France has become India’s second-largest arms supplier after Russia and has supported India’s claim for permanent membership in the UN Security Council. Recently, India’s defense ministry announced its initial approval for the purchase of 26 Rafale fighter jets and three Scorpène class submarines from France. These deals were expected to be signed during the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to France. India already has 36 Rafale jets and six Scorpène submarines from France. The country is also keen on participating in the manufacturing of submarines, as it did with the Scorpène at the Mazagaon Dock. In addition to this, India conducts annual joint military exercises with France and is exploring opportunities for defense co-production and collaboration in research and design processes. French engine manufacturer Safran has already partnered with India’s Hindustan Aeronautics to manufacture engines for its helicopter program.

Overall, the defense cooperation between India and France spans multiple domains, including joint military exercises, logistic support, co-production, research, and design processes, as well as naval cooperation to address maritime security challenges in the Indian Ocean and Indo-Pacific regions. The growing partnership indicates a strong commitment to enhancing defense capabilities and security in the region.

However, with changes in times and administrations, India has set itself on track to become an ‘Atmanirbhar’ or self-reliant military force. Projects aimed towards the indigenisation of Indian defence requirements have pushed India from being the top global military importer to one of the top rising military exporters. These projects have attempted to change the buyer-seller relationship that India has had with partners.

France has shown its willingness to cooperate with India on pursuing technological cooperation and development, without demanding any political prerequisites. The elements of political reliability and trust that underscore the Indo-French partnership presents itself as the backbone of future defence collaboration between the two countries. French Ambassador to India Emmanuel Lenain was quoted in an interview saying that “no other country is so committed to making available to Indian forces the best technology, without restrictions and to such a level to not only meet ‘Make in India,’ but also to go forward to co-develop and co-produce equipment”.

To this end, the French have interacted across different domains and engaged with Indian firms through the transfer of technology. Scorpène-class submarines under project P75 Kalvari are being manufactured in India by Mazagon Dock Limited, in partnership with France’s Naval Group for the Indian Navy. Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers (GRSE) are also working along with the Naval Group to collaborate on naval surface vessels that will cater to the future requirements of the Indian Navy. Simultaneously, France’s Safran Helicopter Engine is also jointly working with Hindustan Aeronautics Limited on the development of engine blocks and critical aerial technology. Increasing cooperation has instigated the development of a Roadmap on Defence Industrial Cooperation, and the establishment of a Technical Office of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) at the Indian Embassy in Paris.

Shared interests in the Indo-Pacific

Autonomy in decision-making and the development and strengthening of an independent strategic outlook has come to be core pillars of both Indian and French political decision-making. Ongoing tensions, both in Europe and the Indo-Pacific – between East and West, once again, create a precarious situation for the nations of the world to navigate through.

Interestingly, with the rising prominence of the Indo-Pacific region, France has become a maritime neighbour of India. The visions of Prime Minister Modi’s SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) and President Macron’s Indo-Pacific Strategy of France, which emphasises security and cooperation, are remarkably in sync. The collaboration between the two countries encompasses a wide range of areas, including defence, security, economy, connectivity, infrastructure, sustainability, and human-centered development.

French Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs Catherine Colonna, as part of her visit to India in 2022, highlighted in a speech that the shared vision of international relations and the attachment of both France and India to the rule of law and multilateralism constitute the strength of the partnership. In her address, Colonna acknowledged the challenges the region is facing, such as the impact of climate change, the after-effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and increasing tensions due to China’s growing assertiveness and strategic competition with the United States. She stressed the importance of not letting the Indo-Pacific become a battleground for global powers and advocated for cooperation to tackle both security and economic challenges.

Systemic Rival?

Earlier, in June 2023, the Olaf Scholz-led government in Berlin released Germany’s much-awaited national security strategy for relations with China, deeming the Asian power a “systemic rival”. As the collective West prepares for competition with China, it recognises the fact that Beijing today is not solely a competitor; but that it is also a partner in solving challenges faced by the larger international community.

Chinese aggression along India’s national frontiers, and along those of other countries across the region, present a perplexing geopolitical tussle. While it violates the sovereignty and threatens the security of some states, hard facts decree that it also plays a decisive role in determining the outcome of the global economy. Beijing, as per Berlin, makes deliberate use of this economic clout to achieve its political goals, while retaining its dominant role in the resolution of challenges faced by the international community.

Shared interests, in New Delhi and Paris, in ensuring the security of an international rules-based world order are particularly challenged by the volatility and uncertainty that affect the region. Both Paris and New Delhi acknowledge the ‘China Challenge’ in the region. More importantly, France’s position on China has hardened, like other European countries. The perception of China in France has undergone a significant shift over the past few years. Previously hopeful for a “global partnership” with China, France now views Beijing as a “systemic rival,” an “economic competitor” but also sometimes as a business and diplomatic partner. This change is mirrored in the broader European Union, which also sees China as a systemic rival. The deterioration of China’s image in France is attributed to growing awareness of human rights violations in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, as well as China’s aggressive “wolf warrior” diplomacy, which has also targeted France.

France is particularly concerned about China’s rising influence in the Indo-Pacific region, given its overseas territories and economic interests there. To protect its territories, France maintains a significant military presence and conducts joint exercises with regional partners. Paris recognizes the importance of cooperation with the US and other like-minded countries like India to counterbalance China’s influence without fuelling confrontation. The EU’s strategy for the Indo-Pacific also aligns with France’s approach. 

In this context, as stated by Prime Minister Modi in an interview with Les Echos that the strategic partnership between India and France was aimed at advancing “a free, open, inclusive, secure and stable Indo-Pacific region”, India’s and France’s strategic interests intersect. Additionally, both nations highlight their nuclear arsenals, robust militaries, and independent stances on global issues, often emphasizing “strategic autonomy.” French President Macron’s “allied, but not aligned” approach that is however ambiguous, given France’s membership of NATO’s unified command) aligns with India’s desire for independence in decision-making, especially concerning great powers.

France holds a unique interest in the stability of the Indian Ocean compared to the members of the Quad group. This interest is rooted in its overseas territories in the southern Indian Ocean and its military bases in the northern Indian Ocean, including Djibouti and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). As a result, fruitful bilateral cooperation has flourished between France and India in this region, as evidenced by the Joint Strategic Vision of India-France Cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region, established in 2018. Moreover, both Paris and New Delhi are intensifying their collaborative efforts with like-minded partners, engaging in trilateral formats with countries like Australia and the UAE, and establishing strategic agreements with nations such as Greece and Egypt. The Indo-French partnership not only reinforces the connections between the Indo-Pacific and the Mediterranean but also enhances regional stability and security.

Despite nuanced differences, their shared aspirations and flexible partnership continue to drive their foreign policies.

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Dnyanashri Kulkarni & Rayan V Bhagwagar

Dnyanashri Kulkarni is currently working as Consultant at the Indian Council for Cultural Relations in New Delhi. She completed her postgraduate studies in international affairs from the Jindal School of International Affairs. Her areas of interest include the geopolitics in and around the Indo-Pacific as well as France. She completed her graduation in French literature from Mumbai University and lived in France for a year as an exchange student.

Rayan V Bhagwagar pursued a Master of Science degree in Strategic Studies from the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He is a Centre Associate at the Centre for Security Studies, JSIA. His fields of interest lie in modern military history, strategic affairs, military tactics, military platforms and national security studies. His major area of interest, broadly, is China, but has a keen eye for allied developments across the greater Indo-Pacific.

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