France has described India as its foremost strategic partner in Asia. Germany has included the word 'Indo' in its regional strategic doctrine for the first time. And India, Australia and France have held their first trilateral dialogue on enhancing cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. All these unrelated developments point to one geo-strategic conclusion: That the world's big democracies are shoring up their defences against the new hegemon that is threatening the global order.
The democratic world is slowly ringfencing itself against the rising new totalitarian hegemon. Recently, the two European Union (EU) powerhouses announced a new pivot to the Indo-Pacific that, willy nilly, complements the Quad, comprising India, the US, Japan and Australia. And all of these moves on the regional geo-political chess board has one fulcrum - India.
A day before the visit of French Defence Minister Florence Parly to India for the induction ceremony of the Rafale fighter jet into the Indian Air Force (IAF), France described India as its foremost strategic partner in Asia. Parly will meet Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval during her visit and, according to a statement issued by the French embassy in New Delhi, will discuss maritime security ties in the Indo-Pacific, counter-terror cooperation and strengthening the overall bilateral defence partnership.
On the same day, Germany announced a new policy on the Indo-Pacific, becoming the second EU member after France to formally adopt a policy doctrine for the region. This doctrine calls for Berlin to make “an active contribution to shaping the international order in the Indo-Pacific.”
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said this region “is where the shape of the international rules-based order of tomorrow will be decided. We want to help shape that order-so that it is based on rules and international cooperation, not on the law of the strong.”
Meanwhile, in an unrelated development that could result in an enlargement of the Quad to include other democracies, the Foreign Secretaries of India, Australia and France co-chaired the first trilateral dialogue between the three countries to enhance cooperation in the Indo-Pacific and strengthening multilateralism.
“During the dialogue, the three sides discussed economic and geo-strategic challenges and cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, particularly in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic and domestic responses to Covid-19,” India's Ministry of External Affairs said in a statement.
It is in this context that the entry of these two European powers into the Indo-Pacific geo-strategic matrix strengthens existing efforts by the Quad members to ensure that the region, through which more than two-thirds of global trade transits, remains a haven of peace and has free and secure sea lanes for countries to engage peacefully with each other.
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It is particularly notable that these two countries have changed their nomenclature for the region from Asia Pacific to Indo-Pacific, signalling the centrality of India in their plans. France did so in May last year when it released a document titled “France and Security in the Indo-Pacific”. This was a new iteration of an older 2016 doctrine called “France and Security in the Asia-Pacific”.
Germany has also included the word “Indo” in its strategic doctrine for the region and marks a diplomatically significant turning point in the traditional German policy of treating China as the central point of the Indo-Pacific.
However, Germany's shift of stance is more nuanced than France's because China is a major market for its industries, especially the auto industry - four out of every 10 Volkswagen cars are sold in Germany; the figure for its marquee luxury auto brands like Mercedes and BMW is three out of 10. So, Germany doesn't want its new, and subtle, strategic shift to come in the way of its trade relations with the Communist behemoth. But the shift, coming at a time when Germany has assumed the rotating presidency of the EU, nevertheless, marks a major shift in global power equations as Berlin will, henceforth, focus more sharply on its partnerships with democratic middle powers in the region such as India, Japan and South Korea.
The Modi government in New Delhi will welcome this overt support from France and more nuanced backing from Germany at a time when it is facing unprovoked military aggression from an aggressive and hostile China on their disputed trans-Himalayan border. This change in the strategic calculus of Germany and France comes at a time when there is rising alarm in Europe about economic dependence on China, the country′s increasingly aggressive military postures against its neighbours and its extremely poor human rights record.
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Over the years, France has emerged as an all-weather ally for India as New Delhi and Paris share similar worldviews and a critical commitment to their strategic autonomy. Recently, India and France signed a military logistics support agreement, similar to the one signed between India and the US that allows each country's defence forces to use the others' bases and other facilities in case of a military emergency.
Then, France has a massive national stake in the Indo-Pacific, its 12 overseas territories stretching from Wallis and Futuna in the East Pacific to French Southern and Antarctic Lands in the western Indian Ocean gives it a large footprint in the region. Importantly, New Delhi and Paris have converging interests in the region, Therefore, a strategic alliance between the two - and the involvement of Quad member in trilateral talks provides all the democracies involved a synergy that is urgently needed.
All these developments point to a fast changing and dynamic geo-political game unfolding in India's neighbourhood. Where this will lead to is still open to question. But one thing is certain: the world's leading democracies have taken cognisance of the rising threat to the existing global order and are shoring up their defences to face the emerging challenges - unitedly.