Naval gun sight. Photo: iStock
Naval gun sight. Photo: iStock

During his just-concluded state visit to India, French President Emmanuel Macron tried to position the Dassault Rafale multirole fighter jet as the frontrunner in the competition to provide the Indian Air Force with 36 new combat aircraft.

He failed, but this did not prevent France from bolstering its strategic cooperation with the South Asian power, showing that its decision to reach out to Delhi was not guided only by commercial motivations linked to the sale of its advanced arms systems.

‘Joint strategic vision’

Macron and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi agreed on a “Joint Strategic Vision for Cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region.” India is a pivotal actor in the Indo-Pacific, while France is actively present in this vast region, where it has overseas dependencies.

The two countries say their defense collaboration is aimed at preserving a rules-based order in the Indian Ocean and Pacific waters, particularly freedom of navigation and overflight.

Macron and Modi signed an agreement that will allow Indian and French armed forces to use each other’s military bases, including naval facilities – India has a similar logistic cooperation with the United States, too. The two parties emphasized the importance of their Varuna naval exercises, which this year will focus on submarine and anti-submarine warfare.

They also aim to strengthen maritime domain awareness in the Indian Ocean, increasing exchange of information on the naval situation there. In this respect, the Indian Space Research Organisation and French National Centre for Space Studies inked a deal to co-develop a surveillance satellite system covering the region.

Arms-sales diplomacy

The cornerstone of defense relations between France and India is undoubtedly the co-development of weapons systems under the “Make in India” scheme. Last December, the Indian Navy commissioned the INS Kalvari, the first of six Scorpene submarines made in India by Mumbai-based Mazagon Dock Ltd in collaboration with French shipbuilder Naval Group. The latter is also teaming up with an Indian shipyard to win the tender for the construction of six advanced stealth submarines.

Dassault Aviation sold 36 Rafale fighters to Delhi in 2016 and is ready to supply the Indian Air Force with another 36 multirole aircraft. Macron said he “personally considers [the Rafale fighter jet program] as the heart of the strategic partnership” with Delhi.

Nonetheless, Paris is going beyond the mere creation of business opportunities in India for its defense industries. To make a comparison, Britain has taken another approach in the Indo-Pacific. Indeed the Royal Navy has been adamant that the frigate HMS Sutherland’s current deployment Down Under is centered on persuading Australia to acquire British Type 26 and 31 frigates.

The ultimate target

Macron underlined during his India tour that Paris and Delhi had reached an “unprecedented” level of cooperation. And this was very likely with China in mind. In their joint statement, the French president and the Indian prime minister took a veiled swipe at Beijing and its Belt and Road Initiative for infrastructure investments across Eurasia and beyond. They pointed out that global connectivity “must be pursued in a manner that respects international norms, the rule of law, as well as sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

India and France have time and again voiced concern about China’s militarization of the South China Sea

India and France have time and again voiced concern about China’s militarization of the South China Sea. They fear Beijing may replicate that conduct in the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific. The Chinese naval presence from East Africa to the Malacca Strait has increased in the past decade. The Indian Navy spotted 14 Chinese warships in the Indian Ocean last August, while it has registered two submarine deployments a year since 2013 by the People’s Liberation Army Navy.

Beijing has set up its first overseas military base in Djibouti and controls the commercial port of Gwadar in Pakistan, with the prospect of building another naval outpost in its vicinity. It has also leased a number of islets in the Maldives, as well as the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka.

This strategic presence, combined with massive investments under the Belt and Road Initiative, has caused India to believe that China is committed to creating a system of dependent client states in the Indo-Pacific. For its part, France views with suspicion China’s naval pressure in the Western Indian Ocean, where it has considerable interests.

It is worth noting that Macron and Modi agreed to expand coordination between their countries in regional bodies like the Indian Ocean Rim Association. France is seeking to cement its strategic role in the region and believes full membership of this grouping will help reach the goal.

The French president and the Indian premier also said that France and India are open to extending their strategic entente to third parties. The reference is possibly to the US, Japan and Australia, which have recently revived talks to coordinate actions against China’s advances in the Indo-Pacific arena.

Emanuele Scimia

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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