Emmanuel Macron's India visit injects new dynamism in Indo-France ties; gives New Delhi an ally in face of Chinese expansionism

As Emmanuel Macron returns home after spending four days in India, it is worth noting the takeaways of a fruitful visit that contrasts sharply with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's disastrous tour of India. The French president avoided the familiar trappings of discovering India as a 'holiday destination' and focused instead on the business at hand.

The end result was a clear roadmap for heightened Indo-French engagement over a range of areas from clean energy, education, trade, space, defence ties to maritime cooperation and geopolitics. As a bonus, an unequivocal message was sent to China that its power projection in Indian Ocean region and Asia Pacific won't go uncontested.

Before heading to Indian shores, Macron had commented that age difference won't come in the way of his 'chemistry' with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It evidently wasn't a factor as both leaders added new dynamism to an old friendship.

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and French president Emmanuel Macron. Reuters

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and French president Emmanuel Macron. Reuters

France had always had India's back. It was the first to recognize the anxieties that drove India to becoming a nuclear power in 1998, the first western nation to develop a strategic partnership with India and the only major power that battled against India's ostracisation and imposition of sanctions when western nations led by the US were lining up to haul New Delhi over the coals.

In his column for The Indian Express, Carnegie India director C Raja Mohan writes, "until recently, it was Russia alone that made an unambiguous choice between India and Pakistan in favour of the former. As Russia reaches out to Pakistan, that special position now belongs to France. For example, Paris has foregone the opportunity to sell major weapons systems to Pakistan and has focused on a strong defence partnership with India."

There could be debates on whether Indo-French ties have yet reached the strategic depth that marks India's partnership with the US or Russia but the trajectory of the relationship, the wide area of shared interests and the reciprocity that is evident in increasing areas of mutual cooperation make this partnership a crucial one for both nations and also for the primacy of democracy across the globe.

China's rise and its floating of an alternative teleological construct for growth and development presents a particularly challenging time for democracy amid a global decline of representative government. In this context, India's partnership with France offers new possibilities to resist the radical changes in international system.

Macron's visit made it clear that in France, India has a major Eurasian power in its corner that shares its values, political system, focus on clean energy and global vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific at a time of great geopolitical flux.

India faces a number of daunting challenges, both internal and external, but none more so than the rise of China as it seeks to grow in the same neighborhood. That it must compete with a hegemonic nation for resources, power and influence within a challenging geographic and geo-economic space is a reality that India cannot escape.

As Professor Mohan Malik writes in his book China and India: Great Power Rivals, "Both want to envelop neighbours with their economies. Both are competing for resources, foreign investment, trade, markets and increasingly, overseas bases. Both are intent on acquiring comprehensive national strength" and this competition is "unfolding in the middle of a perfect storm: resource scarcity, global economic rebalancing, geopolitical shifts, environmental degradation and transnational security threats…" (Viva Books publication).

India's challenge is made more daunting by the power deferential between two nations that is still widening. Pax Sinica is well on way to becoming a reality while Pax Indica still remains a concept. Given this reality, New Delhi has precious few tools at disposal to resist China's gravitational pull over nations in its own backyard. It cannot possibly match China in resources and influence given its own lack of capacity and need for infrastructure, so it must team up with partners to offer an alternative model for development and simultaneously raise political costs for China as it goes about building strategic assets and dual-use major infrastructure to project its power in the neighborhood and beyond.

It is here that India's partnership with traditional powers such as Japan and France may prove crucial. While the partnership with Japan has already been put within a quadrilateral framework and is progressing robustly in economic and strategic spheres, ties with France remained stuck in a sphere of uncertainty.
India would have noted with some concern Macron's endorsement of Xi Jinping's Belt and Road Initiative during his visit to China in January this year. Having said that France was ready to partner with China and play a leading role in BRI, Macron also added a caveat that there is no space for expansionism in the garb of infrastructure development.

"After all, the ancient Silk Roads were never only Chinese… By definition, these roads can only be shared. If they are roads, they cannot be one-way… These roads cannot be those of a new hegemony, which would transform those that they cross into vassals," Macron had said while addressing an audience in Xian, China.

The need for balancing the interests of two Asian nations was reinforced in the joint vision statement that followed Modi's meeting with Macron. Though the term "Indo-Pacific" was absent (may have something to do with India's effort to reset ties with China) in the document, the references to free and open architecture in Indo-Pacific was clear, reinforced by France and India's inking of reciprocal logistics pact that will allow navies and defence forces of both nations to access each other's ports and facilities in Indian Ocean littoral, mirroring India's LEMOA pact with the US.

This may act as a significant deterrence against China's machinations in Indo-Pacific given France's status as a major maritime power and its naval presence in strategic chokepoints.

As C Raja Mohan and Darshana Baruah write in a Carnegie India paper, "France's military presence in Abu Dhabi and Djibouti gives it critical access to two major chokepoints, the Strait of Hormuz (connecting the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Oman and Arabian Sea) and Bab-el-Mandeb (connecting the Gulf of Aden with the Red Sea and the Suez Canal). France also has an extensive exclusive economic zone in the Mozambique Channel (generated by its scattered islands), expanding its reach and access to the eastern coast of Africa."

The India-France joint vision statement also gives an interesting inkling into multilateralism that marks the bilateral tie. "In order to widen and deepen strategic naval cooperation, India and France will be open to inviting strategic partner countries in the region to participate in Indo-French exercises."

This is an obvious message to China about the great power consolidation that may inevitably materalise as a reaction to Beijing's power projection but also to the US, that New Delhi won't restrict itself to 'quad' mechanism when it comes to exploring its options.

The mention of Reunion Island is another interesting addition to the vision statement that immediately places France within the ambit of Indian Ocean region. "The two leaders recalled the close relations uniting India and the French department of Reunion Island, the fruit of a long-standing common history. They desire to develop them in economy, tourism, research, innovation, education, culture, defence and security," read the statement.

In an interview to India Today just before leaving for India, Macron had insisted that France is India's partner not only through history but also geography. "We are part of this region through our geography. And a lot of people ignore that. But we are not just a European power. We are part of the Indian Ocean/ Pacific Ocean powers through the Reunion Island and an island in the Pacific and it's very important to me to be part of this partnership in terms of collective security."

The effort to assist India in maintaining "liberty and sovereignty" of this region was clear and precise. If France's keenness to be a part of BRI is a reality, so is its effort to ensure that the key sea route and trade links remain free of coercion. Between these two stools, there is a lot of space for firming of bilateral ties.

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Updated Date: Mar 13, 2018 19:32:22 IST

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