By Edmund Goldrick, Intern for South Asia
When French President Emmanuel Macron makes his long-awaited visit to India in March 2018, a significant bilateral defence logistics agreement is expected to be signed, marking recognition of France as a key partner for India in the Indian Ocean. Although French military capabilities in the region are modest, its unparalleled success in multinational security and capable power-projection have set it apart.
France first endeared itself to India’s armed forces in the late 1980s, meeting technical needs that the Soviet Union, India’s then-leading defence partner, could not. When the USSR collapsed, French–Indian ties deepened to as part of an effort by Delhi to address its resultant lack of sophisticated technical cooperation. India’s nuclear tests in 1998, though drawing condemnation from Japan and the United States, drew it closer still to a sympathetic France. Since then, France has embedded itself in a range of military-industrial projects in India, including submarines, aircraft and missiles.
But French interests are not primarily corporate. France is quite literally in the Indian Ocean. The islands of Réunion and Mayotte are home to over a million people and are overseas departments of metropolitan France, electing deputies to the French National Assembly and officials to the Senate. The primary French strategic goal in accordance with these interests is regional stability. It has seen France perform an admirable and effective role, one free from the ‘Françafrique’ neo-colonial critique of its land-based policies in francophone Africa.
On paper, France’s capabilities in the western Indian Ocean are unassuming (though still substantial compared to the navies of East Africa). Under the Indian Ocean designation ALINDIEN, it has two frigates at the island of Réunion, the naval base of Héron in Djibouti, as well as navy staff and some army and air force assets in Abu Dhabi. Its achievements however, particularly in regard to nations with close ties to India, are substantial. Its role as a leading advocate of European Union security, as well as its major material contributions to Operation Atalanta, has seen the EU anti-piracy force in the western Indian Ocean greatly reduce the threat in the region.
France also helped secure EU funding for, and participates in, maritime information centres in Madagascar and the Seychelles, as part of the Programme to Promote Regional Maritime Security (MASE). Although India is not directly a member of MASE-linked programmes, it has radar stations in three member states – Madagascar, Mauritius and the Seychelles – which presumably contribute information. These information centres are based on the highly successful model of the Singapore Information Fusion Centre, which compiles information from 38 countries to monitor traffic and address maritime safety in Southeast Asia. Evidently, France is helping to build the infrastructure and organisations to monitor activity in the western Indian Ocean, where there was little capacity to help seafarers in need, or to monitor suspicious traffic.
France’s impressive contributions to bilateral naval exercises with India also demonstrate its capacity for power projection and the importance it places on ties with India. Undertaken for nearly two decades, the French and Indian naval exercise Varuna was until 2006 a modest regional exercise. That year, France sent the Charles de Gaulle carrier strike group to India for Varuna, with aircraft carriers, surface ships and submarines from both countries’ navies undertaking the whole gamut of operational training. The scale of these exercises has kept up ever since, earning France enormous respect from India.
The culmination of these efforts – the defence logistics agreement with India – plays to industrial as much as security concerns. It will bring the two countries closer together at a time when France is trying to secure two of India’s biggest arms contracts: the Indian Navy’s combat fighter and the Indian Army’s 1,770 main battle tanks. With France already providing the Indian Air Force with Dassault Rafale aircraft and helping to build the new generation of Indian submarines, this could see France become the foremost provider of new high-tech arms to India, and make enormous gains in the process.
Strategically, the agreement will mean that France is finally able to enlist the Indian Ocean’s leading navy in its efforts to provide security for its territories in the western Indian Ocean. India, in turn, will be able to consolidate a relationship with the region’s most organised maritime force and gain access to the French Navy’s port at Réunion. The agreement will create an arc of bilateral partnerships for New Delhi, between France, Oman, the Seychelles and the US at Diego Garcia, which will mean India can deploy a substantial maritime force with logistical support and accurate intelligence supplied from across the region. This will be particularly valuable for humanitarian relief, but also affords India with a counterweight to growing Chinese influence in the region.