The first India-France-Australia Trilateral Dialogue at senior official level was organised virtually. The inaugural dialogue was co-chaired by the Indian Foreign Secretary, Harsh Vardhan Shringla, Secretary-General, French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs, François Delattre and Frances Adamson, Secretary of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The meeting focused on enhancing the trilateral cooperation in the Indo-Pacific to ensure a secure, peaceful, prosperous, and rules-based region. The key issues discussed during the meeting included their responses to COVID-19 pandemic, common economic and geostrategic challenges and focus areas of cooperation, need for upholding and reforming multilateralism and promoting trilateral and regional cooperation through foras like ASEAN, Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and the Indian Ocean Commission (IOC). It was agreed to hold the trilateral dialogue annually.
The trilateral is an addition to the already existing dialogues that India has in a trilateral framework with strategic partners including Indonesia and Japan for building practical cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region. The idea of an India-France-Australia trilateral was suggested by the French President Emmanuel Macron while speaking at the Garden Island, in Sydney in 2018.He had suggested “a new Paris-Delhi-Canberra axis as a key for the region with joint objectives in the Indian-Pacific region.” Also the academic community has been recently proposing the idea of exploring the possibility of such trilateral arrangement.
The new trilateral aims at building on the existing robust bilateral relationships between the three countries. India has close relations with France, the two are strategic partner since 1998. India’s ties with Australia have significantly progressed in recent years. During the recent ‘India-Australia Leaders’ Summit’ held virtually on 4 June 2020, the relationship was elevated from ‘Strategic Partnership’ since 2009 to a ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’ (CSP) based on “mutual understanding, trust, common interest and shared values of democracy”.The relationship between France and Australia is also strong. The two countries signed the Joint Statement of Enhanced Strategic Partnership in 2017 to strengthen engagement in the Indo-Pacific region.
In the recent years the rise and increasing salience of the Indo-Pacific in regional and global discourses have played a significant role in shaping this new trilateral which will likely be a factor in determining the regional balance of power. As the French ambassador in India tweeted after the Dialogue, “together we will uphold our values and interests!”There are complementarities in the vision of three democracies for the region, which broadly emphasises on ‘a free, open, inclusive and rules-based Indo-Pacific’. India is a crucial player in the Indo-Pacific. The Australian strategic community has been taking particular interest in the Indo-Pacific construct. Australia, with its unique geographical location a bridge connecting the Indian and the Pacific Oceans and with a two-ocean navy has an enduring interest in the peace, stability and economic prosperity of this strategic arc. France on the other hand, recognising geopolitical shifts, has begun to stress on its identity as an Indo-Pacific nation and willingness to strengthen its partnerships with the major players in the region. France though geographically not a part of Indo-Pacific but policy discourses within France identifies her as a “nation of the Indo-Pacific”. France has overseas territories in the Indian Ocean as also in the Pacific. France and Security in the Indo-Pacific published in May 2019 by the French Ministry of Armed Forces, emphasised that France has almost 9 million km² of EEZ, 1.6 million French citizens live in French overseas departments and territories and the country has stationed overseas armed forces and permanent military basing to fulfill the security responsibilities of a resident power of the Indo-Pacific.
A key factor that has influenced the geopolitical churning in the region in recent years has been the increasing assertiveness of China, about which there is a certain convergence of concern in all the three countries. The regional geopolitical environment has already been undergoing unprecedented transformation; the pandemic has accelerated that change. As anti-China sentiment rises in the wake of the pandemic, many ‘sore points’ have emerged in Australia-China relations. On the other hand, the meeting comes at a time when India and China are in a standoff on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh region that has persisted over months. France though apprehensive about the assertive attitude of China but has kept a relatively low profile on China. On the whole, China certainly is an important factor in bringing the three countries together in a trilateral setup.
Maritime cooperation will be a crucial area of focus as the trilateral relationship evolves in the coming years. Marine global commons was one of the key areas discussed during the inaugural meeting. India is engaged through regular Bilateral Maritime Dialogues and bilateral naval exercises with both Australia and France. Earlier in March 2020 India and France conducted the first joint Coordinated Patrol exercise (COIRPAT) in the Reunion Island, which until now Indian Navy has only conducted with maritime neighbours.India and Australia announced a significant Joint Declaration on a Shared Vision for Maritime Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific during a recent bilateral summit in June 2020, recognising that “many of the future challenges are likely to occur in, and emanate from the maritime domain”. The much-awaited agreement on Arrangement concerning Mutual Logistics Support (MLSA) was also signed during the India-Australia virtual bilateral summit, which will boost defence cooperation by enhancing military interoperability and joint capacity in maritime domain awareness. The MLSA may allow a possibility for India and Australia to use each other’s strategically located island territories i.e. India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands closer to the Malacca Straits and Australia’s Cocos Islands located in the Indian Ocean in close proximity to Lombok, Sunda and Makassar Straits. A similar Reciprocal Logistics Support Agreement, agreement was also signed between India and France in 2018 which seeks to “extend logistical support on reciprocal access to respective facilities for the Indian and French armed forces”.During the French President’s state visit to New Delhi in March 2018, the two countries agreed on a Joint Strategic Vision of India-France Cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region against shared concerns and also expressed willingness to partner with other like-minded countries in the format of trilateral dialogues.6 These agreements mark a significant step-forward in India’s engagement with strategic partners for maritime security in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). An increasing convergence of interests in the maritime realm, offers scope for deepening cooperation to secure the global commons and cooperatively support economic prosperity. As India endeavours to strengthen economic relations and development in the IOR, in a mutually supportive and cooperative manner under the vision of SAGAR (Security And Growth for All), and now the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI), France and Australia could be crucial partners for India bilaterally and also in a trilateral setting. Major focus areas for engagement could include maritime domain awareness, surveillance, combating piracy and counter-terrorism, HADR/SAR, blue economy, preserving marine ecology, logistics support and increased interoperability.
Amidst the rapidly changing geopolitical landscape the Delhi-Paris-Canberra trilateral is the crucial one to look forward to. As the Indian Ministry of External Affairs’, press release noted “the outcome oriented”, trilateral dialogue provide an opportunity for the three sides to utilise common values and interests to synergise efforts to enhance cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region.
*Dr. Pragya Pandey is a Research Fellow at Indian Council of World Affairs.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are personal
 1st Senior Officials’ India-France-Australia Trilateral Dialogue, September 09, 2020, https://www.mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/32950/1st+Senior+Officials+IndiaFranceAustralia+Trilateral+Dialogue
 Macron wants strategic Paris-Delhi-Canberra axis amid Pacific tension, May 3, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-australia-france/macron-wants-strategic-paris-delhi-canberra-axis-amid-pacific-tension-idUSKBN1I330F
Modi-Morrison summit can help plug a gap in India’s diplomatic tradition, 04v June 2020, https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/india-narendra-modi-australia-scott-morrison-virtual-summit-c-raja-mohan-6441370/
 Joint Statement on a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership between Republic of India and Australia, June 04, 2020,https://mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/32729/Joint_Statement_on_a_Comprehensive_Strategic_Partnership_between_Republic_of_India_and_Australia
 France and Security in the Indo-Pacific’, Ministry of Armed Forces, France, 2019
 In a first, India, France conduct joint patrols from Reunion Island, 21 March 2020, https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/in-a-first-india-france-conduct-joint-patrols-from-reunion-island/article31129323.ece
Joint Declaration on a Shared Vision for Maritime Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific Between the Republic of India and the Government of Australia, June 04, 2020, https://mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/32730/Joint_Declaration_on_a_Shared_Vision_for_Maritime_Cooperation_in_the_IndoPacific_Between_the_Republic_of_India_and_the_Government_of_Australia
 History repeating: Australian military power in the Cocos Islands, https://theconversation.com/history-repeating-australian-military-power-in-the-cocos-islands-4484
 India-France Joint Statement during State visit of President of France to India (March 10, 2018, https://pib.gov.in/newsite/PrintRelease.aspx?relid=177251
 I.bid, no. 1.