A French frigate docks in Istanbul. Photo: iStock
A French frigate docks in Istanbul. Photo: iStock

It seems France is set to join the ranks of India’s “anti-China front” in the Indian Ocean. Last week, Paris and New Delhi announced their decision to increase military cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region. The statement came during a two-day visit to the Asian country by French Defense Minister Florence Parly, and amid attempts by the Indian government to try to contain Beijing’s growing assertiveness from the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal.

Parly and her Indian counterpart Nirmala Sitharaman said last Friday that the naval collaboration between their countries in the Indian Ocean was part of a broader plan to expand bilateral defense ties. In particular, France and India aim to improve military-to-military relations, counter-terror cooperation and their ability to develop arms systems jointly under the “Make in India” initiative.

The Indo-French military connection

While India considers China’s military presence in the Indian Ocean a strategic challenge to its regional role, it shares with France the goal of keeping international waters free and secure. Beijing’s militarization of the South China Sea, which is one of the world’s busiest shipping routes, is viewed both in Paris and Delhi as an attack on the rules-based world order.

As an Indo-Pacific actor, given its overseas dependencies in the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific, France has an interest in safeguarding regional stability. Paris is well aware that the global center of gravity is shifting to the Asia-Pacific region, notably in trade terms. French exports to South and East Asia were worth US$61.4 billion in 2016, or 12.5% of the European country’s total, according to the World Bank.

French warships routinely sail through the Indian and Pacific oceans to  protect freedom of navigation. At the moment, as far as maritime collaboration in the area is concerned, Paris and New Delhi plan to expand their information-sharing deals and the scope of Varuna naval drills, slated for early 2018. The annual Varuna exercises were launched in 2001 with the purpose of improving the capacity to conduct joint operations by the navies of the France and India.

French President Emmanuel Macron’s trip to India in December will reveal more about the consistency of Paris’ military partnership with New Delhi. The question is whether France is sincere about its offer of cooperation or it is wooing India into acquiring more French-manufactured arms.

French aircraft manufacturer Dassault Aviation sold 36 Rafale fighters to India in September 2016 and is now competing to provide the Indian Air Force with another 36 multirole jets. As well, French state-owned shipbuilder Naval Group is contributing to the construction of six Scorpene-class submarines for the Indian Navy and is a contender for the realization – in collaboration with an Indian shipyard – of six advanced stealth submarines.

Multilateral counterbalance to China

France maintains it is an Indo-Pacific power, but it cannot conduct extended naval campaigns in the Indian Ocean or the South China Sea. If it wants to contribute to regional security in South Asia and the Pacific Rim, it must inevitably team up with India, the United States, Japan and Australia. This entails the improvement of interoperability and joint capabilities with the navies of these countries.

Steps have been taken by Washington, Tokyo and Canberra to extend naval assistance to New Delhi against China’s advancements in the Indian Ocean, where it has deployed warships, submarines and spy ships.

India is strengthening naval cooperation with Japan. On Tuesday, the Indian and Japanese navies wrapped up anti-submarine-warfare drills initiated two days earlier. The US has recently shown interest in boosting security collaboration with India. And Australia has an increased focus on the Indian Ocean and is keen to enhance security and defense ties with the Indian government.

France is deepening relations with all these Indo-Pacific powers. The path that Paris and New Delhi are treading is similar to that proposed by the US to ramp up its defense cooperation with India. In essence, Washington is ready to develop joint capabilities with the Indian armed forces, besides fostering defense trade and technology sharing.

Indian foreign policy remains “liquid.” On Sunday, for instance, India concluded military drills with Russia. Started on October 19, they were the most ambitious ever conducted by the two nations, according to the Russian side, and saw the simultaneous participation of their air, naval and ground forces for the first time.

But the level of India’s engagement with the US and its allies (including France) is acquiring a considerable dimension. As a result, it is plausible that New Delhi will manage to put up some sort of “multilateral” counterbalance to Beijing in the Indian Ocean.

Emanuele Scimia is a journalist and foreign policy analyst. He has written for Asia Times since 2011. His articles have also appeared in the South China Morning Post, the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, The National Interest, Deutsche Welle, World Politics Review and The Jerusalem Post, among others.

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