The Indo-Pacific region has gained significant prominence in the recent past as the geopolitical spotlight of the world also has gradually shifted from the Asia Pacific to the Indo-Pacific[i]. Nearly 60 per cent of the world's population resides in the Indo-Pacific and contributes to approximately 60 per cent of the global gross domestic product (GDP)[ii]. From an economic perspective, 60 per cent of maritime trade also passes through this region[iii]. Therefore, due to the rising strategic and economic importance along with the changing world order, the number of players and their geopolitical competition has intensified in this region. India and France are two major players having significant economic and strategic stakes in the Indo-Pacific region.
Considering the Indo-Pacific region of strategic importance, both Paris and New Delhi came out with a roadmap in the form of a document named Horizon 2047 where the two nations will “work together in the interest of international peace and stability and reaffirm their commitment to a rule-based order in Indo-Pacific and beyond”[iv].
In this context, this paper focuses on India and France in the Indo-Pacific from three vantage points. They are: a) The underlying importance of the Indo-Pacific for India and France b) The Geopolitical concerns, and c) Areas of Cooperation.
The Underlying Importance of the Indo-Pacific for India and France
A stable and rule-based Indo-Pacific caters to the interests of both India and France. As India’s importance rises on the high table of world politics, the Indo-Pacific region is of critical importance for its economic growth and development and also from a strategic angle. The value of this region for India can be gauged by the fact that 55% of India’s trade passes through the South China Sea and Malacca straits[v].
India stands firm in its vision of a free, open and rule-based Indo-Pacific region. India is of the view that the dominance of one particular player in this region hampers growth and development. Therefore, it advocates an Indo-Pacific that is multi-aligned and is committed to bringing shared prosperity for all players in this region[vi]. The importance of this region is also aligned with India’s ‘Act East’ Policy where India’s interaction with the ASEAN nations, East Asian nations and Pacific region is of great significance.
In March 2015, India came up with its vision for the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) under the initiative known as SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) which was first announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Mauritius. Under this initiative, India aims to build its economic and security cooperation in this region with its maritime neighbours and also foster its economic growth[vii]. Expanding the SAGAR initiative further, India launched the Indo-Pacific Ocean Initiative (IOPI) in the year 2019 with seven pillars that aim to enhance maritime security, sustainable use of marine resources and disaster prevention and management. France has agreed to cooperate with India on the Maritime Resource and Maritime Security pillar[viii].
For France, the Indo-Pacific region is a “geographical reality”[ix] because France is a resident power in this region, having territories both in the Indian and Pacific oceans. These territories are the Reunion, the Scattered Island and the French Southern and Antarctic Territories in the Indian Ocean region and New Caledonia, Wallis and Futuna, French Polynesia and Clipperton Island in the Pacific Ocean. With a total French population of 1.65 million the Indo-Pacific region is approximately 93 per cent of the French Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). France has also positioned 8300 French service members in this region[x]. This highlights the strategic importance of Indo Pacific region for France.
France has come up with its own Indo-Pacific strategy with four fundamental pillars to guide its course of action in this region[xi]. Beginning from the shores of East Africa and Southern Africa, this region for France extends to North, South and Central America.
France is an important member of the European Union (EU) and supports the EU strategy for the Indo-Pacific. The EU’s Indo-Pacific Strategy document highlights seven areas of priority that aim to “share the same interest in upholding the rules-based international order with the UN Charter at its core”[xii]. It is of critical importance to note the convergence between the France and EU Indo-Pacific strategy where France states that it aims “to promote security and peace, effective multilateralism and an international order founded on the rule of law, economic prosperity and the promotion of global common goods.”[xiii] Therefore, both France and the EU share common concerns for the Indo-Pacific, which is also reflected in their respective strategy documents.
The Geopolitical Concerns
The regional balance of power has undergone major changes, primarily due to the rise of assertive power i.e., China in this region as witnessed in the South China Sea and East China Sea challenging freedom of navigation. In addition to this, the intense geopolitical contestation between the US and China holds major implications for both Paris and New Delhi.
This region not only holds geopolitical significance for France but with the gradually evolving strategic challenges, the geopolitical issues are having prominent geo-economic implications as well considering the fact that France possesses a large EEZ in this region and has stakes in the free flow of trade and commerce across the sea lanes of the Indo - Pacific.
The South China Sea where France holds a key interest needs special emphasis. This issue is highlighted in the ‘France and Security in the Indo-Pacific’ document where France states that “In the South China Sea, the large-scale land reclamation activities and the militarization of contested archipelagos have changed the status quo and increased tensions. The potential consequences of this crisis have a global impact considering that one-third of the world trade transits through this strategic region”.[xiv]
The East China Sea located in the Western Pacific Ocean is also an area of major concern. The dispute between Japan and China in the East China Sea is long-standing and the Chinese have claimed it on a historical basis. According to an estimate by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) the East China Sea has about 200 million barrels of oil in proved and probable reserve and natural gas between 1 and 2 trillion cubic feet[xv]. Therefore, China’s actions in this region are of great concern.
Taiwan which is also strategically located in this region, connecting the East China Sea with the Sea of Japan is equally important from the Indo-Pacific perspective. The Taiwan Strait is one of the world's busiest shipping lanes on the trade route to Europe and West Asia pass through this strategic location. 88 per cent of the world’s largest ships by tonnage passes through through this strait[xvi].
For India, 55 per cent of its trade in the Indo-Pacific passes via the South China Sea of which a significant portion goes through the Taiwan Strait[xvii]. Any hindrance to the north of this region would hamper India’s trade flow. Therefore, a stable and peaceful Indo-Pacific especially in the East China Sea and South China Sea region is of critical geo-economic importance for the free flow of trade and commerce. Recently, the aggressive behaviour of China in the South Pacific is also a major concern in the larger evolving geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific.
The perpetual relevance of this region for both the countries from the perspective of economic and security interest is recognised by Paris and New Delhi under the ‘Horizon 2047’. It formulates the road map for the next 25 years and states that “ They are committed to work together to secure their own economic and security interests; ensure equal and free access to global commons; build partnerships of prosperity and sustainability in the region thanks to common development action; advance the rule of international law; work with others in the region and beyond and build a balanced and stable order in the region, with respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity”[xviii]. The document highlights the common goal and interest on which both countries aspire to work.
Areas of Cooperation
India and France are two major players in the region and cooperation between them would play an important role in determining the geopolitical environment of the region. One of the recent developments in the relationship has been France joining the IPOI and taking the lead on the maritime resource pillar and marine security pillar.
From the perspective of multilateral cooperation, the India Ocean Rim Association (IORA) is an important platform that broadly focuses on areas like maritime safety and security, trade and investment facilitation, blue economy etc. Both India and France are members of IORA. After joining as a dialogue partner in the year 2001, France became a full member of IORA in 2020 with a focus on major issues like maritime safety and surveillance, climate change and the protection of biodiversity.[xix]
India and France also cooperate under the Indian Ocean Commission (IOC) institutionalised in Seychelles in 1984. Focusing on island nations, the IOC links five African Indian Ocean nations where India is an observer state while France on behalf of Reunion is a full member state in the IOC. This regional organisation focuses on a wide range of issues like the preservation of ecosystems, renewable energy, management of natural resources and maritime safety.
In the Indo-Pacific, the Pacific Island Forum (PIF) is also a platform where India and France are dialogue partners to foster cooperation with small island countries. In this regard, India also launched the Forum for India - Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC) in November 2014. These countries possess small land areas, however, their combined Exclusive economic zones (EEZs) are significantly large making it an area of cooperation on multiple fronts. The 3rd India-FIPIC summit was held in Papua New Guinea where India emphasised the importance of multilateral cooperation and supported a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific[xx].
Both countries also interact at the trilateral level under the India-France-Australia trilateral dialogue that started in the year 2020. The dialogue aims to “guaranteeing peace, security and adherence to international law in the Indo-Pacific”[xxi]. The dialogue has three fundamental pillars of cooperation and aspires to explore the future of possibilities for holding the meeting of Foreign Ministers on the sideline of UNGA.
The maritime domain is an important area of cooperation for India and France in the region. Regular bilateral exercises have been conducted by the navies of the two countries since 1993 to foster maritime cooperation. Recently, in October 2023 the Indian and French Navy conducted the Phase II of the 21st edition of the “Varuna-2023” bilateral exercise in the Arabian Sea to enhance their warfighting skills, enhance interoperability and promote peace and security in the Indo-Pacific[xxii]. France, in this regard, also has a military base in Djibouti. In March 2018, the two countries also signed an MOU regarding the provision of ‘Reciprocal Logistics support between the Armed Forces’[xxiii]. This will facilitate the countries for authorised port visits, help in joint training and exercise and also provide with humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts. The agreement evidently shows the growing strategic cooperation and their shared interest in maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific region.
For the promotion and use of clean and renewable energy, India and France have also built cooperation under the International Solar Alliance (ISA). It is a major initiative launched by both India and France in 2015 to harness solar energy technologies. They are participating in developmental partnerships in the third country.
In addition to these areas, environmental and biodiversity protection in the Indo-Pacific region is of equal concern for both countries. In the year 2022, a common ground for cooperation to deal with the conversion of forests for agricultural uses was found under the Indo-Pacific Park Partnership[xxiv]. It is focused on three major themes i.e., Biodiversity conservation, Sustainable tourism and Governance reinforcement. The conversion of forests for agricultural uses and illegal logging is a major cause of concern for this region.
India and France have also cooperated in the mobilisation of funds under the initiative of Sustainable Finance in the Indo-Pacific (SUFIP)[xxv]. The French Development Agency (AFD) and India Exim Bank (EXIM) have cooperated for this initiative to address climate-related issues specifically in the Indo-Pacific. This will provide a boost for the implementation of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and also for the fulfilment of the goals of the Paris Agreement.
The Indo-Pacific has gained significant prominence in the recent past and this is palpable due to the changing geopolitical and geoeconomic interests of various players that are active in this region. Highlighting the importance of the current situation in the Indo-Pacific, and its implications for India’s interest in the region, India’s External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar had remarked that India needs to “ engage America, manage China, cultivate Europe, reassure Russia, bring in Japan..is the ‘Sabka saath and sabka Vikas’ in India’s Foreign Policy”[xxvi]. The statement highlights the strategic approach of India in this region.
India and France as two key players promoting bilateral and multilateral cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. Both the countries have come forward with joint initiatives on multiple domains ranging from geopolitical, strategic and economic factors to environmental cooperation and biodiversity protection.
The core democratic values and a joint vision for a sustainable and peaceful Indo-Pacific region have set a firm ground for India and France. The 25 years of its Strategic Partnership is a symbol of a stable and time-tested relationship whose base has been further strengthened for the future by some of the major areas of cooperation and initiatives jointly taken by both countries in the Indo-Pacific region.
*Abhishek Kumar, Research Intern, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
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[ii] Biden, P. (2022, May 23). Remarks by President Biden at Indo-Pacific Economic Framework For Prosperity Launch Event. The White House. Retrieved November 1, 2023, from https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2022/05/23/remarks-by-president-biden-at-indo-pacific-economic-framework-for-prosperity-launch-event/
[iii] The regional economic order: four scenarios – The National Security Futures Hub. (n.d.). Futures Hub. Retrieved October 31, 2023, from https://futureshub.anu.edu.au/the-regional-economic-order-four-scenarios/
[iv] Horizon 2047: 25th Anniversary of the India-France Strategic Partnership, Towards A Century of India-France Relations. (2023, July 14). Ministry of External Affairs. Retrieved October 29, 2023, from https://mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/36806/Horizon_2047_25th_Anniversary_of_the_IndiaFrance_Strategic_Partnership_Towards_A_Century_of_IndiaFrance_Relations
[v] QUESTION NO. †4832 INDIAN TRADE THROUGH SOUTH CHINA SEA. (2022, April 1). Ministry of External Affairs. Retrieved October 19, 2023, from https://mea.gov.in/lok-sabha.htm?dtl/35118/question+no+4832+indian+trade+through+south+china+sea
[vi] India stands for free & rules-based Indo-Pacific crucial for economic development of the region & wider global community, says Raksha Mantri at Indo-Pacific Regional Dialogue in New Delhi. (2022, November 25). PIB. Retrieved October 29, 2023, from https://pib.gov.in/Pressreleaseshare.aspx?PRID=1878750
[vii] Padmaja, G. (n.d.). REVISITING ‘SAGAR’ – INDIA'S TEMPLATE FOR COOPERATION IN THE INDIAN OCEAN REGION. National Maritime Foundation. Retrieved October 22, 2023, from https://maritimeindia.org/revisiting-sagar-indias-template-for-cooperation-in-the-indian-ocean-region/
[viii] Colonna, C. (2022, February 20). Indo-French call for an “Indo-Pacific Parks Partnership” Joint Declaration (Paris, 20 Feb. 2022). France Diplomatie. Retrieved October 24, 2023, from https://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/en/country-files/india/news/article/indo-french-call-for-an-indo-pacific-parks-partnership-joint-declaration-paris
[ix] The Indo-Pacific: a priority for France - Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs. (n.d.). France Diplomatie. Retrieved October 29, 2023, from https://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/en/country-files/regional-strategies/indo-pacific/the-indo-pacific-a-priority-for-france/
[x] Ibid. no 6.
[xi] Ibid. no 6.
[xii] EU-Indo Pacific Strategy | EEAS. (2023, May 11). EEAS. Retrieved October 29, 2023, from https://www.eeas.europa.eu/eeas/eu-indo-pacific-strategy_en
[xiii] Indo-Pacific: 8 questions to understand on France's regional strategy. (n.d.). France Diplomatie. Retrieved October 29, 2023, from https://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/en/country-files/regional-strategies/indo-pacific/indo-pacific-8-questions-to-understand-on-france-s-regional-strategy/#sommaire_5
[xiv] FRANCE AND SECURITY INDO PACIFIC. (n.d.). Embassy of France in the United States. Retrieved October 16, 2023, from https://franceintheus.org/IMG/pdf/France_and_Security_in_the_Indo-Pacific_-_2019.pdf
[xv] International. (2014, September 17). International - U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). Retrieved November 1, 2023, from https://www.eia.gov/international/analysis/regions-of-interest/East_China_Sea
[xvi] Zeng, K. (2022, September 6). What is the impact of the China - Taiwan conflict on shipping? Risk Intelligence. Retrieved November 1, 2023, from https://www.riskintelligence.eu/analyst-briefings/east-asia-impact-of-china-and-taiwan-conflict
[xvii] Taiwan: An Indian view | Brookings. (2022, December 16). Brookings Institution. Retrieved November 1, 2023, from https://www.brookings.edu/articles/taiwan-an-indian-view/
[xviii] Ibid no. 3
[xix] France and the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). (n.d.). France Diplomatie. Retrieved October 29, 2023, from https://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/en/country-files/regional-strategies/indo-pacific/regional-based-organisations-of-the-indo-pacific/article/france-and-the-indian-ocean-rim-association-iora
[xx] Jha, M. (2023, May 22). 'India believes in multilateralism,' says PM Modi at FIPIC Summit. Mint. Retrieved October 31, 2023, from https://www.livemint.com/news/world/india-believes-in-multilateralism-says-pm-modi-at-fipic-summit-emphasises-indo-pacific-cooperation-11684721651655.html
[xxi] The Indo-Pacific: 1st Trilateral Dialogue between France, India and Australia. (n.d.). La France en Australie. Retrieved October 24, 2023, from https://au.ambafrance.org/The-Indo-Pacific-1st-Trilateral-Dialogue-between-France-India-and-Australia
[xxii] 1st Edition India France Bilateral Naval Exercise ‘Varuna’ – 2023. (2023, September 11). Indian Navy. Retrieved October 23, 2023, from https://indiannavy.nic.in/content/21st-edition-india-france-bilateral-naval-exercise-%E2%80%98varuna%E2%80%99-%E2%80%93-2023-0
[xxiii] List of MoUs/Agreements signed during the State Visit of President of France to India (March 10, 2018). (n.d.). PIB. Retrieved October 18, 2023, from https://pib.gov.in/Pressreleaseshare.aspx?PRID=1523717
[xxiv]Colonna, C. (2022, February 20). Indo-French call for an “Indo-Pacific Parks Partnership” Joint Declaration (Paris, 20 Feb. 2022). France Diplomatie. Retrieved October 17, 2023, from https://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/en/country-files/india/news/article/indo-french-call-for-an-indo-pacific-parks-partnership-joint-declaration-paris
[xxv]Final communiqué. (n.d.). SUSTAINABLE FINANCE IN THE INDO-PACIFIC. Retrieved October 15, 2023, from https://www.sufip.com/sustainable-finance-indo-pacific-2022/final_communique
[xxvi] When discussing our maritime interest, India should also think about the Pacific Ocean: EAM Jaishankar | India News - Times of India. (2022, September 4). The Times of India. Retrieved October 23, 2023, from https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/when-discussing-our-maritime-interest-india-should-also-think-about-pacific-ocean-eam-jaishankar/articleshow/93982995.cms