Commitment to rules-based order has helped New Delhi and Paris forge a shared approach through new cooperation mechanisms.
As India and France reaffirmed their strategic relationship last week, with Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla underscoring the critical significance of France as a steadfast friend across several domains, there was more on the agenda than global warming, maritime security and sustainable development.
Of course, Shringla's visit to Paris and meeting with senior French officials came against the tense backdrop of the horrific Nice and Paris attacks and the rise of Islamist terror in Europe, and both sides agreed that terrorism and the radicalism that gives rise to it were the most chilling form of censorship. The Indian foreign ministry also issued an unambiguous statement standing by France.
But more significantly, New Delhi and Paris also decided to strengthen their Indo-Pacific partnership and take forward their shared approach through several cooperation mechanisms - such as bilateral action between the foreign offices, ministries of defence, and military entities.
That development comes as three Rafale fighter jets of the Indian Air Force are scheduled to arrive in India on Wednesday, flying non-stop from France - providing the IAF with eight of the 36 Rafale jets in service. “Three Rafale jets will fly directly from Istres in France to Jamnagar, an eight-hour-plus non-stop flight. They will be accompanied by French Air Force mid-air refuelling aircraft and there will be three tankings in all,” an aviation source told The Hindu.
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The Rafale jets reflect one of the biggest defence cooperation between India and its oldest strategic partner in the West. India has contracted 36 Rafale omni-role fighter jets from France in fly-away condition with 13 India Specific Enhancements (ISE) under a $7.87-billion Inter-Governmental Agreement signed in September 2016.
The first batch of five Rafale jets were formally inducted into the No.17 'Golden Arrows' squadron of the IAF on September 10 at the Ambala Air Force station. Last month, Indian Air Force chief Air Chief Marshal R.K.S. Bhadauria said the IAF would get three or four Rafales every two or three months till all 36 jets were delivered and that the first squadron would be fully ready by the end of 2021.
“In the next three years, we will see the Rafale and Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) MK1 squadrons operating with full strength, along with additional Su-30MKI and MiG 29 aircraft, that are being ordered in addition to the current fleets,” he said.
With those squadrons fully operational, it will mark a key fulfilment of the India-France strategic partnership, in which cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region now finds a prominent place as the two countries cooperate closely in the western and southern Indian Ocean.
France was the first European country to launch an Indo-Pacific strategy and India is a key pillar in that strategy.
It was in May 2018 that French President Emmanuel Macron made the term “Indo-Pacific” a concept of French foreign policy for the first time - shortly after Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi publicly dismissed the concept as an “attention-grabbing idea” that “will dissipate like ocean foam.”
However, Macron's speech at the Garden Island military base in Sydney, Australia, differed substantially in its objectives and content from US President Donald Trump's introduction of his own Indo-Pacific strategy in November 2017, while recognizing that the US and China's radically opposing interests in the Indo-Pacific and globally, are a central driver of contemporary international relations.
“France's approach to the Indo-Pacific aims to protect the country's international position and its specific interests - notably, in the overseas territories that anchor and give credibility to the French strategy. But the strategy's implementation, a delicate exercise, will continually require French decision-makers to have a clear vision of these interests and to avoid any rhetoric or dangerous confrontation with China,” said Frederic Grare, a non-resident Senior Fellow in Carnegie's South Asia Program.
Indeed, the French government is among a handful of governments that has appointed an ambassador for the Indo-Pacific region where Paris has assets, including territories.
“Unsurprisingly, France's goals for the Indo-Pacific largely overlap with those of its partners and allies. The goals include maintaining freedom of navigation on the sea and in the air, which France intends to uphold through dialogue and discussion and, if necessary, through its armed forces, whether alone or in partnership. They also include safety and security, particularly in regards to terrorism, nuclear proliferation, trafficking of all kinds, and attacks on sovereignty,” said Grare.
Those goals have not only found a great synergy with India's strategic objectives for the Indo-Pacific, but New Delhi is a key pillar in that strategy.
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“India and France are strong partners in the Indo-Pacific. We are united in our vision of the importance of maintaining a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific. We remain committed to upholding the rules-based international order,” Shringla told a leading French thinktank during his visit.
Whether it is terrorism, norms-based international institutions, technology and innovation, India and France have worked to bolster their close strategic bond in the recent years, and the focus on Indo-Pacific will only work to infuse greater interest in the strengthening dynamics of their relationship.