AUKUS has opened strategic opportunity for India, and France is a key player in the equation

In fact, instead of constricting India, AUKUS has opened a window of strategic opportunity and a chance for New Delhi to deepen its partnership with France provided it plays the cards well

Sreemoy Talukdar September 23, 2021 09:17:02 IST
AUKUS has opened strategic opportunity for India, and France is a key player in the equation

US president Joe Biden along with British prime minister Boris Johnson and his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison announce the AUKUS alliance. AFP

The foreign policy discourse in India is a study in histrionics. It is either torn between hysterical fears of whether we will “surrender our sovereignty” if the United States so much as even raises the issue of using Indian soil as staging base for over-the-horizon strikes in Afghanistan (Washington hasn’t, and likely never will because it makes no sense). Or, there is breast-beating on why the Americans overlooked India when it comes to sharing its most advanced and sensitive nuclear military technology and gave it to Australia instead.

India’s colonial experience precludes it from entangling itself in alliances. This doesn’t mean India avoids alliances, but it does try not to get bound by treaties, preferring instead to work in partnerships and issue-based coalitions. The flip side of this no-strings strategy is that it cannot demand every piece of shiny new tech from partners that catch its fancy and cry at being denied.

India is a strategic partner of the US, and increasingly a very close one, but it doesn’t have a security alliance with Washington like Canberra does. Therefore, the outrage over why the US is not sharing the crowning glory of its nuclear-powered submarine technology with India or whether the US may force us against our will to share military bases because we have signed some foundational agreements with Washington is two sides of the same silly coin.

A similar absurd binary is currently playing out in India on whether the AUKUS security alliance between Australia, UK and the US has made Quad a defunct mechanism — ironically at a time when prime minister Narendra Modi is in Washington for the first ‘in-person’ Quad Leaders’ Summit at the invitation of US president Joe Biden. As I have argued previously, AUKUS is a significant step towards managing the geopolitical turbulence in the Indo-Pacific, and it will complement, not diminish the importance of Quad.

In fact, instead of constricting India, AUKUS has opened a window of strategic opportunity and a chance for New Delhi to deepen its partnership with France provided it plays the cards well. The need of the hour is intense and mature diplomacy to tap into the opportunities beyond binaries. Towards that end, the timing of the AUKUS agreement couldn’t have come at a better time for India.

As stated above, the prime minister is on a three-day US visit from 22-25 September when he will engage in a bilateral with Biden to review the India-US Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership. Modi will also meet vice president Kamala Harris before sitting across the table with Biden, Australian PM Scott Morrison and outgoing Japanese PM Yoshihide Suga for the Quad Leaders’ summit that “provides an opportunity to take stock of the outcomes of our Virtual Summit in March this year and identify priorities for future engagements based on our shared vision for the Indo-Pacific region.”

Modi’s bilateral engagements will also include Suga and crucially, Morrison, at a time when France’s ties with both the US and Australia are at a nadir due to French anger at being suckered and humiliated by its “friends”.

In the last leg of his US tour, Modi will move to New York where he will address the United Nations General Assembly “focusing on the pressing global challenges including the Covid-19 pandemic, the need to combat terrorism, climate change and other important issues.”

Interestingly, before embarking on the tour of US, Modi spoke to French president Emmanuel Macron over the phone, and the outcome leaves no space for doubt that the Indo-French strategic embrace on Indo-Pacific is set to intensify.

In a tweet, the prime minister called Macron his “friend” and said they discussed, among other things, “closer collaboration between India and France in the Indo-Pacific”, adding that “We place great value on our Strategic Partnership with France.”

An MEA release added both leaders “reviewed the increasing bilateral collaboration in the Indo-Pacific region, and the important role that the India-France partnership plays in promoting stability and security in the region.”

In reply, Macron, who placed the call, turned on the charm by referring to Modi as “dear companion, dear friend” in Hindi, and added in the tweet: “Thank you for reaffirming the importance of our Strategic Partnership. India and France are strongly committed to making the Indo-Pacific an area of cooperation and shared values. We will continue to build on this.”

The press statement from Macron’s office on the talks stated that Modi and Macron will “act jointly in an open and inclusive Indo-Pacific… to promote regional stability and the rule of law, while precluding any form of hegemony” and Macron assured Modi of “France’s commitment to contributing to strengthening India’s strategic autonomy, including its industrial and technological base, as part of a close relationship based on mutual trust and respect between two strategic partners. Bilateral cooperation in all areas, particularly in the economic sphere, will be boosted.”

Crucially, Macron rang up Modi a day before the French president agreed to take Biden’s conciliatory phone call where the US president admitted “that the situation would have benefitted from open consultations among allies on matters of strategic interest to France and our European partners.”

And even before Macron had dialled Modi, on September 18, French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian spoke to external affairs minister S Jaishankar. According to the French foreign ministry readout of the phone call, “the two ministers decided to deepen their strategic partnership, based on a relationship of political trust between two great sovereign nations of the Indo-Pacific.”

What we see before our eyes is the shifting of geopolitical tectonic plates. India is bang in the middle of the shift and in a unique position to manage the turbulence.

France is smarting from the humiliation at being blindsided by the AUKUS pact that it says was drawn behind its back and is furious at being “stabbed in the back”. It isn’t just the anger caused by the sudden cancellation of the $65 billion ‘deal of the century’ to build 12 conventional diesel-electric submarines for Australia — though that in itself is a crippling blow to France’s defence industry. French anger has its roots in the diplomatic setback meted out by the deal. The submarine contract was a signifier for France’s strategic commitment in Indo-Pacific, where as a resident power it has its skin firmly in the game.

After working for years to secure its strategic presence in world’s most sensitive geopolitical zone, France wasn’t amused by the way it was dumped by those it considered as its allies. As Benjamin Haddad, senior director for Europe at the Atlantic Council, wrote on Twitter: “Why is France so upset? Those pointing to the commercial deal are missing the point. The view in Paris is the US shaped an alliance in secret with two partners, undercutting France's entire Indo-Pacific strategy in the last decade. Why France was not brought in is inexplicable.”

The betrayal cuts even deeper. Australians, led by PM Morrison, have claimed that France’s diesel-powered submarines were increasingly unsuitable for Australia’s strategic needs, and Chinese aggression has compelled it to look for nuclear-powered subs that are stealthier, deadlier and has better staying power underwater.

And yet Financial Times reports that as far back as in June, “French officials asked their Australian counterparts multiple times whether they wanted to change the contract from conventional to nuclear-powered submarines, which France also makes, because they suspected that Canberra was reconsidering. These questions were met with silence.”

A jolted France has recalled its envoys from Australia and the US, an unprecedented move, and cancelled defence talks with the UK. However, France’s outrage has been interpreted as a performative art ahead of French presidential elections and its European partners and the EU have been either silent or made perfunctory remarks.

As Bloomberg sums it up, “One could hear the veritable pin drop in Germany, where a pre-election leaders’ debate had nothing to offer on subs or European geopolitics. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, meanwhile, promoted his recent meeting with Johnson in London as proof of “strengthening” ties with a country the French see as Aukus’ third wheel.”

This then forms the backdrop of greater Indo-French collaboration in the Indo-Pacific. The events in the last few days may turbocharge a relationship that is already driven by policy convergence and strategic logic. France takes its role as an Indo-Pacific power seriously in a region where it maintains four naval bases, stations around 7,000 soldiers and has 1.5 million citizens in island territories such as New Caledonia and French Polynesia.

France also takes great care in burnishing its credentials. In February this year, Paris sent a nuclear-powered attack submarine to conduct a patrol in the South China Sea, the staging ground for great power competition between the US and China.

France has long carried the can for Europe when it comes to Indo-Pacific policy, and it developed its own strategy in 2018. During Macron’s visit to India in March, France and India unveiled the ‘joint strategic vision’ for cooperation in Indian Ocean Region that included agreeing “on the need to establish an open, inclusive and transparent cooperation architecture, with the aim of delivering to all associated with the region, peace, security and prosperity.”

The two countries conduct Varuna bilateral naval exercise, initiated in 1983. In its 19th edition this year, the joint exercise comprised various drills across the spectrum of maritime operations “with the goal of fostering interoperability and mutual learning between the two navies and reinforcing their capability for joint action in a strategic area.”

The closeness in defence ties is complemented by rise in defence trade with France accounting for 4.6 percent of India’s imports during the last five years, an increase of 572 per cent compared to just 0.8 per cent.

In March last year, India and France conducted joint patrols from the Reunion Island for the very first time as part of New Delhi’s effort to expand its maritime footprint. As The Hindu observed in a report, India rejected a similar offer by the US, preferring to carry out Coordinated Patrols (CORPAT) only with maritime neighbours. France’s place in Indian Ocean as a resident power was further formalized.

The pinnacle of India-France defence cooperation, however, has been the induction of French-made multirole Rafale aircraft in IAF’s arsenal. India has so far received 26 of the 4.5 generation fighter jets out of an order of 36 from Dassault Aviation and Paris would have noted that despite a lot of domestic political heat around the purchase of the jets, the Modi government did not flinch and went ahead with the scheduled procurement.

Unlike the betrayal of the Anglosphere, India has so far been a reliable partner for France, and vice-versa. As C Raja Mohan points out in Indian Express, it was “French President Jacques Chirac who first, during a visit to Delhi in January 1998, called for ending India’s nuclear isolation” and it was France again that more than four decades ago supplied nuclear fuel to India’s Tarapur Atomic Power Station when builders US had backed out.

Naturally, since India has been denied nuclear submarines by the US, it stands to reason that France — which has a commitment to aid Brazil in its quest for nuclear-powered submarines — may extend such an offer to India.

Worth noting that during a visit to New Delhi in September 2020, French defence minister Florence Parly discussed the idea that the Rafale deal could lead to sales of other weaponry, including submarines, according to a report in South China Morning Post. The report quotes a source as saying that “the Indian air force is completely satisfied with these planes, and that means we are well-placed for the future” which may include possible arms sales, apart from the submarines.

Incidentally, India, which currently operates 14 diesel-powered submarines and two nuclear-powered subs has floated the tender this year for manufacturing of six Kalvari-class diesel-electric attack submarines under its Project-75I program. The Indian Navy also has plans to induct six-nuclear-powered submarines.

The dovetailing of French and Indian interests is clear. However, as Kashish Parpiani of ORF points out, “this trajectory of India-France partnership stems from substantial policy-level convergences and is not merely the product of nascent conversations around European “strategic autonomy” or India’s intent to diversify its portfolio of strategic partnerships.”

If France fits perfectly within Indian strategic and defence calculus, India is also uniquely positioned to deal with the ripple implications of AUKUS deal and play the role of a moderator between the warring sides.

In many ways, France’s anger also stems from the realization that NATO is now a defunct organization in absence of the glue, USSR, that held it together. France is finding it difficult to deal with America’s clear shifting of focus from NATO to Indo-Pacific, a movement that has now been cast in stone with the signing of AUKUS.

The dysfunctional NATO, whose transatlantic members are struggling to hold on to the framework, reflects the extent to which alliances are driven by strategic logic and arise out of a common threat perception. The threat of USSR has now subsided, hence NATO is now bereft of energy which seems to have shifted entirely to Indo-Pacific where an aggressive and determined China is stirring up the pot. As Chinese power projection grows, so will the response from America, which has now made a firm, long-term commitment in Indo-Pacific with the signing of the AUKUS pact.

India wouldn’t mind it one bit, because an enhancement of Australia’s maritime capabilities works to its advantage by ensuring a more “stable balance of power in Indo-Pacific”. It also leaves India with a less of a headache in securing its maritime flank from Chinese aggression and New Delhi may focus more fully on the threat emanating from the land border with China.

Conversely, France, that bet its house on a security partnership with Australia, now finds itself turning to India to rework its Indo-Pacific strategy. Between these ongoing cross currents, India has a momentous opportunity to increase its strategic outreach. It may work as a conduit for challenging but necessary conversations between the bickering sides, impressing upon them the need to stay united and focused on the bigger picture — China.

In his book The India Way, EAM Jaishankar writes, “India could rise in an incremental way, as it was hitherto wont to do, hoping to play a balancing role as new equations came into play. Or, it could be bolder and seek to determine agendas and outcomes”. That moment is now.

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