October 2, 2022

India’s French connection – A ray of hope on rough waters?

In the backdrop of the Quad and AUKUS, India and France, who have for years espoused the goal of a ‘free and open’ Indo-Pacific, have gradually become close confidants while strengthening their defence ties

By Namrata Asok

The Indo-Pacific happened to be the highlight of International Politics last year. In the backdrop of the Quad and AUKUS, India and France, who have for years espoused the goal of a ‘free and open’ Indo-Pacific, have gradually become close confidants while strengthening their defence ties. France was an unfortunate victim of the fall-out caused by AUKUS, severely marring its defence industry. Proof of its commitment to the Indo-Pacific was supposed to crystalize through its ‘Future Submarine Program’ with Australia. However, when the latter chose to side with the US and UK to galvanize its presence in the region in a rather underhanded manner, France quickly lost a longstanding partner in its bid to gain legitimate significance in the Indo-Pacific. Some scholars were doubtful if France would be offered another chance at claiming significance. On the contrary, AUKUS seems to have been both a boon and a bane to Paris. Losing out on Canberra led Paris to seek solace in New Delhi, which was evident when Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the first to receive a call from French President Emmanuel Macron in the aftermath.

France’s Indo-Pacific strategy views India as an important component, as the Indian Navy has considerable maritime influence in the area. A closer look at the events that have transpired last year serve as proof that France and India are already in a mutually beneficial relationship.

France and India have witnessed a convergence in their strategic policies, to bolster and maintain a multilateral world order, in the face of China’s growing footprint in the region and the US’ insistence to quell its growth through military pacts like AUKUS. France’s Indo-Pacific strategy views India as an important component, as the Indian Navy has considerable maritime influence in the area. A closer look at the events that have transpired last year serve as proof that France and India are already in a mutually beneficial relationship. While the timely delivery of the omni-role Rafale jets have been a constant on the Indo-French defence agenda, many have debated whether India stands to gain more, either with regards to a new submarine deal, or strengthening itself as a key player in the Indo-Pacific.

India: An ideal Indo-Pacific partner and beacon of hope

The 3rd Annual Defence Dialogue held on December 17 saw France guaranteeing that it will be ready, on India’s request, to provide additional Rafale jets and even heralded the possibility of providing India with submarine technology. Now that France has lost its footing in relations with Australia, many have postulated that India may have a real chance at increasing its fleet.

France, in its 2016 contract to Australia, only provided for conventional diesel-electric submarines, because Canberra believed that it did not possess the capabilities required to maintain those which were nuclear powered. Commenting on possible avenues to claim significance, Bruno Tertrais, Deputy Director of leading French think-tank ‘Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique’ and Former French ambassador Michel Duclos emphasize that France should “fully bank on India”, as New Delhi continues to keep a distance from military pacts, and generally maintains a diplomatic non-aligned stance. Australia also argued that the country could not purchase French nuclear submarines due to its complex requirements, which could only be fulfilled by a ‘more advanced domestic nuclear industry’. In line with this reasoning, Tertrais and Duclos stressed that France should no longer hesitate to provide their nuclear submarines to those countries that possess a civilian nuclear complex, which enables them to fulfill the requirement of reloading its core. From this perspective, India is a frontrunner in being France’s ideal partner in the Indo-Pacific because it has the necessary prerequisites to accommodate a French nuclear submarine. Moreover, India becomes indispensable to France by virtue of its constant aid in the Western and Southern Indian Oceans, and most importantly, being recognized as the ‘linchpin of the region’. There could be no better rationale to explain France’s ceaseless reiteration of India’s prominence in its Indo-Pacific Strategy.

In addition to this, the French Ministry of Armed Forces, in its evaluation of the large strategic changes in the Indo-Pacific, mentioned the ‘strategic rivalry between China and USA’ as being a game-changer in the strategic security of the region. As mentioned earlier, India and France, along with Japan, share kindred views, alluding to a balanced, multipolar world as well as a free and open Indo-Pacific. Some point out that the US accepted the geopolitical significance of the Indo-Pacific concept as a means to counter China’s growing footprint, and reinstate its superiority in the region. This is certainly a diversion from France and India’s comprehensive understanding of the concept, and one which is not to the former’s liking. To expand on this, France believes that it has real ‘skin in the game’ with regards to the Indian and Pacific Oceans and considers itself as both a ‘resident’ and a ‘balancing’ power – the Indo-Pacific comprises more than 90 per cent of its Exclusive Economic Zones, and the islands of La Reunion and Mayotte house around 850,000 and 290,000 French nationals respectively, while the Pacific islands of New Caledonia, French Polynesia, Wallis and Futuna, and other smaller islands house another 1.6 million French nationals. France has also deployed around 8,000 soldiers in several bases spread throughout the region. The Indo-Pacific has also been an economically advantageous region to France, with the presence of some 7,000 subsidiary companies, as well as accounting for one-third of France’s non-EU exports.

India is a frontrunner in being France’s ideal partner in the Indo-Pacific because it has the necessary prerequisites to accommodate a French nuclear submarine. Moreover, India becomes indispensable to France by virtue of its constant aid in the Western and Southern Indian Oceans, and most importantly, being recognized as the ‘linchpin of the region’. There could be no better rationale to explain France’s ceaseless reiteration of India’s prominence in its Indo-Pacific Strategy.

Considering this, it is not brazened to observe that India could very well offer France a silver-lining in the region, allowing New Delhi to reap vast benefits for the long term, especially in defence.

A chance to improve naval capabilities

At present, India possesses around 17 submarines, consisting of 15 conventional diesel-electric submarines, one domestically built nuclear ballistic submarine (SSBN), and one general purpose nuclear-powered submarine (SSN) leased from Russia. Former Rear Admiral Raja Menon writes that the Navy is India’s only hope against an eventual Chinese incursion in the Indian Ocean. The Indo-Pacific has been regarded as the Indian Navy’s backyard, but some experts state that India’s dwindling naval capabilities are an obstacle to maintaining their prominence in the region. Dr. Prakash Menon, Director of the Strategic Studies Program of the Takshashila Institution, stresses that India must “enhance its submarine building capabilities” in order to devise an effective strategic offensive in the Indian Ocean Region. Hence, the acquisition or construction of SSNs has been a common point of emphasis for all experts. SSNs are considered to be faster than the conventional submarines, and possess the ability to maintain underwater for longer periods of time.

The question remains – why has India not been able to acquire sufficient nuclear submarine technology, apart from the SSN leased by the erstwhile Soviet Union and later, by Russia? India had previously made efforts to receive such advanced technology from the US, but to no avail. The US, for a long time, maintained that it would not allow for such technology transfers even to its closest allies, much less India, a non-aligned country. Even though experts had their hope reignited during the revival, the US continued to reiterate their hardened stance on nuclear technology transfers. It is natural to assume that it came as a shock to many when the US offered to discuss technology transfers with Australia. Although not as aggrieved as France, India, as Raja Menon discussed, would certainly be embittered that “a country with 27 million people has become a power that can influence choices being made in Beijing”.

The blow that AUKUS dealt to France therefore supplements India’s needs quite well. Under Project 75, India and France, factoring in the ‘Make in India’ initiative, are currently constructing six conventional Kalvari class Scorpene submarines at Mazagon Dock, Mumbai. Dr. Prakash Menon stresses that India must “leverage France’s loss”. He further explains that naval prowess is gaining prominence in today’s geopolitical environment, and that it is imperative for New Delhi to pursue complex nuclear submarine technologies without compromising on the “surface elements for constabulary and power projection roles”. In conjunction with Dr. Menon’s thoughts, Raja Menon reiterates the importance of reorienting the Indian bureaucracy’s focus towards the Navy, which in his opinion, is the only wing of our Armed Forces capable of fending off China.

The blow that AUKUS dealt to France therefore supplements India’s needs quite well. Under Project 75, India and France, factoring in the ‘Make in India’ initiative, are currently constructing six conventional Kalvari class Scorpene submarines at Mazagon Dock, Mumbai. Dr. Prakash Menon stresses that India must “leverage France’s loss”

This delineation of India and France’s defence ties gives it immense strategic importance, not only for Paris, but also for New Delhi, who stands to become a major beneficiary, seeking to build its existing capabilities in the Indo-Pacific. While scholars have indicated France’s need to look for an alternative to Australia, one must not simply view India as a replacement. As France and India’s strategic viewpoints on the Indo-Pacific share growing similarities as the years go by, Paris becomes increasingly committed to highlighting India in its Strategy. Simultaneously, as the world order tilts in favour of bilaterals and trilaterals to achieve mutual goals, India has primed itself to become a balancing power, willing to enhance and explore old and new relations respectively. Its ties with France unequivocally serves a dual purpose – with Paris aiming to claim prominence in the region once more, and New Delhi setting its sights on becoming a formidable naval force in the Indo-Pacific.

Namrata Asok is a Political Science and History Graduate from St. Stephen’s College, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of https://strategicaffairsindia.in

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