On January 26, France, will be, once again, the chief guest at India’s Republic Day celebrations. Emmanuel Macron is the sixth French president to be conferred such an honour. With the exception of Francois Mitterrand, all his predecessors since Valery Giscard d’Estaing, have attended the parade. Macron’s invitation comes, six months after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s successful visit to Paris. Such a continuity illustrates the excellence of a bilateral relationship which has evolved over the years, irrespective of the governments in power in both countries.
The cooperation between the two countries has deep roots, in particular in the field of defense. As early as 1953, India turned to France to equip its Air Force with 120 Ouragan fighter aircraft and diminish its so-far exclusive dependence on the United Kingdom. This was followed in 1985 by the acquisition of 39 fourth-generation multirole Mirages 2000, long before the signing of the strategic partnership between the two countries in 1998. Since then, India made many more French acquisitions: Scorpene submarines in 2006 and 36 Rafale multirole fighter aircrafts in 2016. In 2023 new contracts for 26 Rafales Marine, the version meant to equip aircraft careers, and 3 Scorpenes were announced.
But as important as defense cooperation may be, the partnership reflects primarily an ever- growing convergence between the Indian and French political and strategic visions on a number of major issues of common interest, in particular in the Indo-Pacific, and a similar attachment to strategic autonomy, a concept both understand as dependence control strategies. Even though they differ on the management of their respective partnerships, it does allow them close cooperation with third parties without alienating their autonomy of decision. France’s technology transfers to India with no strings attached and respect for India’s own rationale at the time of disagreement, illustrate the point. This understanding of each other is fundamental and distinguishes France in India’s foreign policy.
The convergence in the Indo-Pacific is understood by both as a way to manage China’s assertiveness, but they also agree on a “non-antagonistic” approach to China. Neither country wishes to engage in a direct confrontation with China, military or otherwise, or even containment with China. Rather, India and France intend to rebalance their relationship with Beijing as peacefully as possible. Their policies therefore include elements of deterrence, constraint, but also cooperation, playing on the entire range of possible instruments from normative to military but including also a whole set of specific policies such as trade, or climate change which are gradually acquiring a competitive dimension because of the growing polarisation of international relations.
The India-France Indo-Pacific Roadmap, made public by the two countries in July 14 2023, illustrates the point. A programmatic document, it enumerates the main priorities of the bilateral cooperation for the next 25 years. It underlines the alignment of security in the Indo-Pacific and willingness to jointly develop mechanisms to work on diverse issues as maritime security, resilient infrastructures, preservation of biodiversity or energy transition,a contribute to political meshing which caters to their own needs as also those of the resident countries.
In this way, Paris and New Delhi are strengthening cooperation in multiple formats and in spaces where multilateral organizations are poorly structured and ineffective in responding to the many challenges to the region.
These convergences do not prevent occasional but very real differences on issues. Ukraine was one such example. Paris refrained from criticizing New Delhi, understanding both India’s dependence vis-à-vis Russia and the uselessness of the critic. The two countries found themselves however, in a common understanding of the need to prevent the emergence of a Moscow-Beijing axis, perceived as potentially dangerous for their interests as well as for the proper functioning of the international system.
The Franco-Indian relationship is not free from potential fragilities either. Decision-making in India is carried out on the basis of a narrowly-defined national interest. Indian foreign policy is deeply coherent, driven by the sole imperative of maximizing India’s national interest. India is aware of the value of its cooperation with France, but does not intend to be locked into an exclusive relationship, particularly as it is being courted by a significant part of the international community.
Don’t expect major announcements to be made, nor big contracts signed, during this, Macron’s third trip to India since 2018; these were already made in Paris in July during Modi’s Bastille Day trip. Clearly on display though, along with military might, will be an understanding between friends, and the maturity of the bilateral relation.
Dr. Frédéric Grare is Senior Research Fellow at the National Security College in Canberra and Associate Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). He was previously a policy officer at the Centre for Analysis, Planning and Strategy of the French Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs, and Director of the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
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