India-France strategic partnership: Beyond defence agreements

PHOTO/ARCHIVO - El primer ministro indio, Narendra Modi
PHOTO/FILE - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited France on July 13 and 14, where he was the guest of honor at the Bastille Day Parade. He held talks with French President Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne.   

Macron also conferred the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor on Modi. This is the highest honor of France, civil or military. With Modi as the Guest of Honour, a 269-strong tri-service Indian contingent also took part in the Bastille Day Parade.  

This is the twenty-fifth year of strategic partnership between India and France. Of all the Western countries, it is with France that India has had the most stable friendship. In 1998, India conducted nuclear tests. Immediately, the United States (USA) and several Western countries imposed sanctions on India. But France refused to impose sanctions and supported India. France supported India's right to prioritize its national security in the wake of the unstable neighborhood.  

The highlight of this visit was that India finalized the agreement for the acquisition of 26 Rafale-Marine fighter jets and three Scorpene diesel-electric submarines from France. This deal follows a major acquisition deal for 36 Rafale fighter jets that India and France finalized in 2016. In recent years, France has become the second largest supplier of defense equipment to India. Between 2018 and 2022, India imported about 30% of its total defense equipment from France.  

Although the India-France strategic partnership was formalized only 25 years ago, the strategic relations between the two countries date back more than 100 years. The participation of the Punjab Regiment of the Indian Army in the Bastille Day Parade has a special significance for both countries. During the two World Wars, the Punjab Regiment, a part of the Indian-British army fought alongside the French soldiers in France. More than 70,000 Indian soldiers sacrificed their lives while fighting in France. 

France also supported India when the latter conducted nuclear tests for the first time in 1974. After these tests, the USA. and Canada immediately ended its nuclear commitments to India. But France intervened and supplied nuclear fuel to the Tarapur nuclear power plant in India.  

India-France relations are not just about strong ties in the areas of defence, nuclear and space. Both countries have a shared vision in a broader global geopolitics. 

The Indo-Pacific region has played a vital role in the consolidation of India-France relations. With the Indo-Pacific region becoming the world's center of economic and strategic power, many countries, particularly European countries, have begun to shape their approaches to engaging with this region.  

France formulated its own Indo-Pacific strategy in 2018. Since then, the commitments with India have taken on greater importance as France, like other Western countries, sees India as a trusted partner in the Indo-Pacific region. India and France share a common democratic vision for the Indo-Pacific region that includes rules-based order and freedom of navigation and overflight.  

In addition, France is a resident power in the Indo-Pacific region, the only EU (European Union) member country that has territories in this region. The departments of Réunion and Mayotte in the Western Indian Ocean and French Polynesia, New Caledonia and Wallis and Futuna in the South Pacific Ocean are French territories. 90% of France's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) is located in the Indo-Pacific region. Being a resident power makes France a direct actor in the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific region.  

One of India's strategies for the Indo-Pacific includes the formation of military groupings. India is part of multiple such initiatives. The Quad is among the most prominent groupings of which India is a part. Besides Quad, India is a part of the I2U2 (a group from India, Israel, USA and the United Arab Emirates) and another group that has India, Saudi Arabia, the USA and the United Arab Emirates.  

With France, India is part of two such initiatives. The first is the India-France-Australia trilateral that was formed in 2020. This trilateral works in the areas of maritime security in the Indo-Pacific, marine and environmental cooperation and multilateral commitment. However, following the formation of AUKUS between Australia, the UK and the USA, France abandoned the India-France-Australia trilateral. France was angry that the UK canceled the nuclear submarine agreement with the former and then joined the AUKUS. But France rejoined in 2022 and the trilateral is working together again. India has been instrumental in reducing tensions between France and Australia and convincing them to work towards the common goal of Indo-Pacific security.  

The second initiative in which France is participating is the India-France-UAE trilateral that was formed in 2022. This grouping focuses on cooperation in the areas of solar and nuclear energy, climate change, health, technology and biodiversity protection. It is pertinent to note that, individually, both India and France enjoy close strategic ties with the UAE. France also has military bases in the United Arab Emirates. When the first batch of Rafale fighter jets arrived in India, it made a stopover at Al Dhafra Air base in the United Arab Emirates before continuing its journey to India. On his way back to India from France, Modi visited the UAE on July 15. This visit not only further strengthens India-UAE relations, but also the trilateral engagement between India, France and the UAE.  

While China is a common challenge, both India and France are aware that they need to take a careful approach. Both countries understand that they have to find a way to reduce economic commitments to China while countering its assertion in the Indo-Pacific region.  

India's vision for the Indo-Pacific extends beyond defence cooperation. France has been a close partner of India to cooperate in various areas such as climate change, technology and space. Modi's visit to France is the third in the last four years, indicating an acceleration and strengthening of India-France relations.  

(Niranjan Marjani is an independent political analyst and researcher from Vadodara, India specializing in international relations and geopolitics. His areas of work are the foreign policy of India, South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Indo-Pacific region, Central Asia and the Middle East. He contributes articles for Indian and international publications. He is the consulting editor of The Kootneeti español, an Indian magazine on international relations published in Spanish. He also offers consulting as a political risk analyst to Indian and foreign corporate entities).