French Indo-Pacific Strategy has been hit hard after the signing of the Australia-UK-US (AUKUS) on September 15 this year. Firstly, the signing of the AUKUS partnership came at the expense of Australia’s $37bn (£27bn) deal with a French company for procuring diesel-powered submarines. Secondly, France got to know about the deal hours before the public announcement of the deal, further antagonising it. France feels that it has plainly been sidelined by the three Anglophonic countries in the region. France, having economic and security stakes in the Indo-Pacific region, will seek to enhance its diplomatic and political presence in the region, for which it sees India as a natural option after its post AUKUS fallout with the US and Australia.
Ever since the singing of AUKUS in France’s relations with Australia remains strained. France has lodged its strong protest against the cancellation of its submarine deal by Australia. Not only that, but France also called back its ambassador from the US and Australia.
Now, the Australian Defence Force has also decided to retire its entire fleet of European-designed Taipan helicopters a decade earlier than scheduled by replacing them with Black Hawks and Seahawks from the US. Although they were locally manufactured in Australia based on the European design and technology, their scrapping in favour of the US-made helicopters within a few months of AUKUS still dent a blow to the prestige and reliability of European defence equipment where French Airbus was the primary developer. Earlier, France has also not been made a partner in the Five Eye Intelligence sharing network of the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada.
France’s Stake in the Indo-Pacific
France has overseas territories, and 93% of its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) is located in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, where 1.5 million French citizens live. With the geo-economic centre of the world shifting here from the Atlantic and the strategic importance of the region also demonstrated by the US shift to the Indo-Pacific, France has all the stakes in the region. Besides that, France is also major world power and has played a significant role globally as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. Furthermore, due to the increasingly strategic and economic importance of the region, France cannot stay behind its partners in the region. It will seek to enhance and strengthen its regional partnerships, including with India.
Indo-French Strategic Partnership
Indian military appetite for more weapons remains a major factor behind the interest of Western countries, including France, to cooperate with India. French Defence Minister Florence Parly visited India on December 17 to hold the Annual Defence Dialogue with her Indian counterpart, Rajnath Singh. This year, the annual dialogue received more attention in the aftermath of the AUKUS deal. The focus of the dialogue remained on the maritime security in the Indo-Pacific and industrial and technological partnership in line with Make in India between India and France.
They have agreed to build a joint aircraft engine in India and deliver more Rafale if the Indian government demands. The French Minister stressed the importance of India in the French Indo-Pacific strategy. A French Embassy’s statement reads, “This visit highlights France’s engagement in the Indo-Pacific and the centrality of India in the French strategy.” The minister also met with Indian Prime Minister Modi and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval.
France is in search of a partner in the region, and India seems to tick all the major boxes for it. For India, France has become a major supplier of military equipment lately. The most recent example is the sale of 36 Rafale aircraft, which are being delivered to India. The Rafale aircraft has received celebrity welcome by all the circles in India, from its airforce to media. This has further consolidated the Indo-French ties. Earlier, France has previously collaborated with India to build six Scorpene submarines at Mazagon Dockyard in Mumbai. This provides a solid ground for any future cooperation between India and France.
The provision of nuclear-powered submarines by the US to Australia is also a consequential step and has eased for other Western countries to provide similar technologies to their partners. While India plans to develop six nuclear-powered submarines, France is looking for a buyer for its submarines as the Naval Group lost 10% of its revenue with the cancellation of the submarine deal by Australia. There remains a possibility of France providing its naval nuclear reactor (NNR) to India for building six nuclear-powered submarines.
The European Union has also announced its Indo-Pacific Strategy to boost political and defence ties in the region after the AUKUS deal. It plans “exploring ways to ensure enhanced naval deployments by the EU Member States to help protect the sea lines of communication and freedom of navigation.” As the EU wants to increase its diplomatic profile and enhance military presence in the region, the French government has maintained that the AUKUS only “heightens the need to raise loud and clear the issue of European strategic autonomy.”
India stands to benefit from the widening gulf between the US and its European allies in the Indo-Pacific region. With a separate EU strategy for Indo-Pacific, albeit similar in terms to the US strategy, India has found a new way to exploit the potential by strengthening its defence ties with France, the main driver of the EU Indo-Pacific strategy. It is already reaping benefits from the US on the pretext of containing China under the US Indo-Pacific strategy. Like the US, for the EU and France in particular, the rise of China remains a concern for the stability in the region, and their strategy vis-à-vis China has some elements of hedging approach. At the same time, however, the implementation of French strategy in the Indo-Pacific will likely avoid dangerous confrontation and rhetoric against Beijing as it is not comfortable with the widening gulf between the US and China. France sees multilateralism as a way to maintain the balance of power in the region, and India is one of the partners France is looking at.