By Kashish Parpiani and Mrityunjaya Dubey
This month, the Indian Navy will participate for the first time in France’s La Pérouse naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal. Scheduled for 5–7 April, the exercise will also witness participation from India’s fellow Quad members—Australia, Japan, and the United States. Reports of France leading the Quad navies during the exercise, have come amidst speculations of a ‘Quad-plus’ framework and rising interest from extra-regional players. The UK, for instance, recently released its Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development, and Foreign Policy, which outlined a framework for London’s “Indo-Pacific tilt”. In addition, Josep Borrell—the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, recently called on Europe to “set out a common vision for its future Indo-Pacific engagement”.
However, despite this further internationalisation of the Indo-Pacific construct, French engagement in the region is incomparably unique.
Significance of France in the Indo-Pacific
By appointing its first ambassador to the Indo-Pacific, France has underscored its prioritisation of the region, which is home to “its overseas territories and 93 per cent of its Exclusive Economic Zone.” The southern part of the Indian Ocean is home to French territories of Mayotte and La Réunion, the Scattered Islands, and the French Southern and Antarctic Territories. Moreover, France is the only European country that possesses overseas territories in both—the Indian and Pacific oceans. The latter is home to French territories in New Caledonia, Wallis and Futuna, French Polynesia, and Clipperton Island. By the virtue of this “resident power” status, France is an integral part of the Indo-Pacific region and particularly the Indian Ocean subregion. France also boasts of the world’s second-largest Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) on account of nearly 9 million square kilometres of French EEZs in the Indo-Pacific. The French overseas territories in the region are home to 1.6 million French citizens and another 200,000 French nationals live in the Indo-Pacific states.
Moreover, in maintaining a permanent security presence in the region, France’s military outposts are organised into multiple joint regional commands—Command of the French Armed Forces in the South of the Indian Ocean (COMSUP FAZSOI), Command of the French Armed Forces in New Caledonia (COMSUP FANC), Command of the French Armed Forces in French Polynesia and Command of the Pacific Ocean maritime zone (COMSUP FAPF/ALPACI), Command of the French Armed Forces in the United Arab Emirates and Command of the Indian Ocean maritime zone (COMFOR FFEAU/ALINDIEN), and Command of the French Armed Forces in Djibouti (COMFOR FFDJ). Notably, across these commands, the major share of France’s 7,000 personnel presence is in the Indian Ocean, with 4,100 personnel in the subregion and 2,900 in the Pacific.
Hence, with France also identifying itself as a “State of the Indian Ocean rim”, the upcoming iteration of the La Pérouse exercise — which was initiated in 2019 between France, Australia, Japan and the US, will witness participation from India—which Paris has termed as its “foremost strategic partner in Asia”. Moreover, such efforts by France, which are aimed at actualising its “resident power” status in the region, come amidst renewed questions over the US’ role in the Indo-Pacific.
Is Biden looking to ‘lead from behind’ in the Indo-Pacific?
By resuming its invocation of the Trump-era nomenclature of the ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ and the recent high-level visits of Biden national security officials to Japan, South Korea, and India, the Biden administration has sought to quell initial concerns over the US’ commitment to the Indo-Pacific. However, amidst a broad decline in the political currency of American internationalism, some commentators have now begun to warn against the US entrenching itself in a geopolitical expanse that is “rife with unrealistic expectations and unvetted assumptions” and called for invoking the Indo-Pacific construct “only as a balancing game against China”.
This emphasis on balancing in the region was also apparent in Kurt Campbell’s (Biden’s Indo-Pacific Coordinator) January 2021 article, wherein he advocated for the US to work towards the Indo-Pacific’s need for “a balance of power; the need for an order that the region’s states recognize as legitimate, and the need for an allied and partner coalition to address China’s challenge to both.”
Notably, this article appeared amidst reports of Biden’s national security team internally contemplating a ‘lead from behind’ strategy, with Japan playing “a placeholder role” while Biden would focus on his domestic agenda. In lending credence to this line of thinking, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin chose Japan as the destination of their first overseas travel. Moreover, the joint statement of the US–Japan 2+2 Security Consultative Committee revealed that Blinken and Austin dedicated most of their time with Japanese officials on aligning US–Japan positions on the promotion of a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ across the areas of climate change, clean energy, cybersecurity, supply chains, and COVID-19.
In addition, on Campbell’s prescription for a regional balance “in concert with allies and partners” which commands “generally accepted legitimacy”, the Biden administration’s efforts on the Quad stand out. For instance, the recent Quad leaders’ summit culminated with an agreement to spear the manufacturing and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines across the Indo-Pacific, as an apparent “proof of concept” of the group’s ability to “lead the Indo-Pacific”.
However, despite continued concerns over Biden’s policy in the Indo-Pacific, New Delhi’s early prudence on cultivating other “strategic alignments”—primarily in the Indian Ocean, offers the prospect of continuity.
Indian and French interests align in the Indian Ocean
Another critique of the US’ commitments in the Indo-Pacific has been the widening of the “regional aperture” to include the Indian Ocean region, which some see as “an area of debatable interest” for the US. Hence, despite the significance of the US’ political, military and capacity-building support for India’s efforts in the Indian Ocean region, the primary purpose behind Washington cultivating India’s rise as the region’s security provider is its intent to fully focus its resources in the Pacific subregion of the Indo-Pacific. Under Biden, this focus on the Pacific is expected to persist, with his administration continuing the Trump approach of “strategically predictable, but operationally unpredictable” US naval operations in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait.
Whereas for France, its actions in the Indian Ocean stem from it having real ‘skin in the game’, with its overseas territories rendering the region to be a matter of sovereignty—much like New Delhi’s outlook. Hence, under its policy of honing multiple “strategic alignments” in the Indo-Pacific, India chose to conduct Joint Patrols in the Indian Ocean with France and turned down offers from “several senior US military officers” to conduct patrols with the US Navy.
Such convergent interests has also spurred the India–France partnership to develop an appetite for lateral expansion, chiefly with the “Paris-Delhi-Canberra axis”. In swiftly finalising agreements on reciprocal access to each other’s military bases—i.e. France’s Reunion island, Australia’s Cocos Islands, and India’s Andaman and Nicobar islands, the three “resident powers” have instituted operational heft for securing the length and breadth of the Indian Ocean region. Moreover, in a sign of continued engagement, the foreign ministers of the three countries are expected to hold a trilateral dialogue a week after the La Pérouse naval exercise.
Finally, as opposed to the US’ belated expansion of its conception of the Indo-Pacific construct to also include East Africa and the north-west Indian Ocean region, Indian and French conceptions have been completely aligned. This has led to France facilitating India’s positioning of liaison officers at the Regional Maritime Information Fusion Centre (RMIFC) in Madagascar and the European Maritime Awareness in the Strait of Hormuz (EMASOH)—which is headquartered at the French military base in Abu Dhabi. Another testament to this convergence is the upcoming annual India–France Varuna naval exercise. Scheduled for 25–27 April, the exercise will witness participation from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for a trilateral exercise in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.
Hence, with these convergent interests in the Indian Ocean and France now leading the way on possibly manifesting a different ‘Quad-plus’ framework, New Delhi’s early prudence on investing in its partnership with Paris seems to be paying off.
-The article is inferred from Observer Research Foundation portal https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/la-perouse-quad-naval-exercise-and-indias-strategic-partnership-with-france/
-The author is Fellow at ORF’s Mumbai centre. His interests include US-India bilateral ties, US grand strategy, and US foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific. The co-author is Research Intern at ORF, Delhi. The views expressed are of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda