Much has been said about the delivery of the first two Scorpene submarines from France to India, and especially about the associated technology transfer, allowing India to consider the construction of the next four engines on its own. However, the issue of France’s interests in this partnership has been less discussed. Even since Japanese Prime Minister H.E. Mr. Shinzo Abe in his now famous speech “Confluence of the Two Seas” at the Parliament of the Republic of India in 2007, the term “Indo-Pacific” has been widely used. France is not an exception to this general trend: the French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs’ website mentions the Indo-Pacific region as “a priority for France”, indicating her strong presence in the region, while also exhibiting her interests to strengthen this commitment through various channels. This article seeks to examine one of these channels, namely the repeated French interest in the Make in India initiative launched by the Indian Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi, in September 2014, and the potential assets associated for France in the Indo-Pacific region.
Before getting to the crux of the matter, it is important to make a quick assessment of the Make in India initiative. While talking about this Government of India programme, one has a propensity to think instinctively and exclusively about India. In fact, discourse on it has largely focused on indigeneity and self-sufficiency. In this perspective, the scheme for investment promotion including the formulation of a Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) policy and Ease of Doing Business reforms has often been forgotten. Admittedly, the results of these reforms are not as conclusive yet as the Indian Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion (DIPP) suggests, with only USD 8 billion of FDI inflows in the last nine months (which is not only a declining figure but also a very low one). Nevertheless, it is worth looking beyond these figures. The political will to open up exists and must not be ignored, especially when one considers the many restrictions imposed in the past. Moreover, the defence sector occupies a special position with India as the second largest importer of arms during the period of 2014-18, with foreign vendors providing for more than 50% of defence equipment procurement.
So, where does France stand with regards to all these new opportunities? First of all, browsing through the “Defence manufacturing” section of the official Make in India website, Airbus and Dassault Aviation SA appear among the nine foreign investors in this field. Although these two French companies are privately owned, the highly strategic dimension of their business cannot be studied completely devoid of the French strategy. Indeed, if India offers advantages in terms of costs, for example, it would be restrictive to look solely at this explanation. The presence of these two companies at the forefront of foreign investors in India’s defence industry does say something about Paris’ intentions, since these two are not the only companies present in India. Additionally, “France’s full commitment to supporting the Indian government’s Make in India programme in the defence sector” reiterated by the current French Ambassador to India, H.E. Emmanuel Lenain, (in his article for The Indian Express dated 5 February 2020) rightfully supports this idea.
What are, therefore, the reasons explaining France’s commitment to this initiative?
First of all, with media having a tendency to insist on ruptures, even if it means inventing them, it is necessary to take a long-term perspective to observe that this process is not new. In 1949, India established defence relations with France in a business partnership approach and, in the 1960s, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) built the light helicopters – Cheetah and Chetak, on the Indian territory itself. Nevertheless, despite the desire to institutionalise their defence relationship, it was, for a long time, limited to the sale of armaments alone. In this respect, the Indo-Pacific could appear as the missing puzzle and attempt to fill in the missing link between the two countries in a rather concrete way through awareness of a theatre of common interest. In fact, the maritime domain is of such nature that India and France can be considered as neighbours in the region, precisely because of the presence of French territories in the Southern Indian Ocean (Le Réunion, Mayotte, French Southern and Antarctic Lands, including Île Amsterdam, Crozet Islands, Juan de Nova Island, Tromelin Island, etc.). Thus, the core of their defence relationship is gradually evolving from strictly material considerations to that of converging interests.
One of the main reasons behind this long-standing partnership is the proximity of the two countries and their mutual respect due to their commitment to political independence. The search for ‘strategic autonomy’ by both India and France could be seen as its contemporary translation. Associated with this is a certain vision of the world, advocating for a multipolar order (against the idea of a US-led order). The Indo-Pacific, described as “the centre for the development of new models and conceptions of international relations”, represents an opportunity for these two countries to implement their ideas at a larger scale. This holds even true if we were to take a closer look at Paris’ and New Delhi’s respective visions in the region.
The French President, Emmanuel Macron in a 2018 speech at Garden Island naval base in Sydney, had stated that, “our goal is to act as an inclusive and stabilizing mediating power. France’s priority is to propose an alternative – a stable, multipolar order based on the rule of law and free movement, and fair and efficient multilateralism”. The proposition of ideas of openness, freedom and inclusiveness are in common to India. From this perspective, it can be said that the arms sales and technology transfers accepted by France are quite measured. By equipping India, France is strengthening its own chances of having its vision of the Indo-Pacific relayed. Furthermore, in 2018, Macron has proposed a new strategic alliance with India, which shows that arms sales do not come alone.
Nonetheless, despite India being referred to as “France of Asia” by some, France and India should not be considered as identical. Their different geographical locations are different, to say the least, especially in the Indo-Pacific. Moreover, if their democratic character gives them an interchangeable national core interest (which is to « ensure the economic, material and societal well-being of their people »), the declination of this interest is certainly different.
In the case of France, it is not always easy to identify a clear strategy or plans. The “French Strategy in the Indo-Pacific” of 2019 published by the French Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs was welcomed by many experts. Indeed, only a few countries have taken the time to propose a document focusing on this new geopolitical space. However, the outlines of this strategy and above all, the means for its implementation, remain very vague and diplomatic. Three major pillars have been set out as maritime safety; infrastructure and climate; and environment and biodiversity. As far as defence is concerned, the document assumes that the French forces are adequate and figures on the rench presence, a priori important, are given. Nevertheless, it is difficult to measure the actual evolution of the French presence and its integration of the Indo-Pacific as a new area for reflection with a comparative approach in place. Moreover, the Make in India initiative is not mentioned. However, reading between the lines, one observation regarding the document consists in the strong French presence in the Indo-Pacific, even in the South Pacific and along the Eastern coast of Africa unlike many countries, it is obvious that France cannot be present everywhere.
Coming back to the Make in India initiative as a potential asset for France, the latter has been facing an economic slowdown for several years now and its troops are scattered in several theatres. Moreover, politically speaking France is constrained by its membership of the European Union in its decision making. Finally, France has had only a limited presence in the area in recent years and its naval capabilities are quite limited comparing the vastness of the space to be covered. These limits are the result of long-term choices, and it would be idealistic to hope for a real shift, in the short term at least. Faced with these realities, France alone cannot secure its 1.5 million citizens and its 8000 soldiers, or the 93 per cent of its EEZ located in the Indo-Pacific. These challenges are multiplying, as officials and researchers like to remind us. This could be one of the main reasons for the French Republic’s interest in the Make in India initiative.
To secure a region, it is not a question of being present everywhere at once but of exerting sufficient influence on key countries. India is definitely one of these key countries because of its central position in the region, both geographically and politically. The potential gains for France in terms of influence by taking part in the defence side of the Make in India initiative are multiple. First of all, a strong signal is sent to potential threats. Without the need for direct confrontation, this commitment represents a form of deterrence in the region. In this respect, against what is generally thought, hardware can participate as a form of soft power diplomacy. Moreover, India remains a large and credible country as also the centre of dialogue in the region, pending its replacement by ASEAN. It remains the country best able, not to counter China, or at least not in the sense understood by the US government, but to balance power in the region. Secondly, knowing the equipment of its partners and possessing similar or complementary ones allows joint exercises to be conducted. This is also a way for France to gain more independence from other players in the region. Indeed, another important partner of India is the United States of America (USA). We often think of Mr. Donald Trump but another more long-standing factor could disrupt the use of a certain number of weapons if it were to be applied. Indeed, the USA regularly publishes a list of products known as ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations). These products are subject to US control and can be banned at any time. In view of the fluctuating position of the USA vis-à-vis Pakistan and India’s desire for strategic autonomy, it seems beneficial for both parties, India and France, that the share of France in India’s total armaments, and therefore not subject to such regulations, relatively increase. Here it should be pointed out that in his speech on defence and deterrence strategy in February 2020, French President Emmanuel Macron also reiterated the importance of strengthening Europe’s technological independence. He cited a number of ways of achieving this including “an autonomous and competitive defence industrial base, a determined and massive effort to innovate, mastery of our security technologies and control of our defence exports”. The economic gains resulting from participation in the Make in India initiative are significant and can lead to more investment. As for the control of defence exports, the article has already insisted on that.
To sum up all these points in one key concept, we can say that the Make in India initiative represents one more platform for France to project its power. However, all this does not mean that France’s interests in the region have been clearly identified. The private companies involved are not merged with France, although the country does have some influence on them. They remain primarily driven by economic goals. Thus, the considerations seen above certainly represent an interesting investment plan, but this does not make it a good strategy. Indeed, the latter is still, at least partially, under construction. Moreover, it seems that this supposed strategy does not appear obvious to its partners in the region, notably to India. If we consider that India too has difficulties in formulating a clear strategy for the Indo-Pacific, we can question the impact, other than economic, of the French measures. To this, one must also add the lack of in-depth research on both sides on the Indo-Pacific and the maritime field in general. Finally, having already discussed about the Make in India initiative in terms of the arms industry, it is the “capacities” aspect that is most emphasized. However, with both France and India having strong assets in terms of “capabilities”, technology transfer and training/education are being brought in, with the need of more such efforts being realised to achieve higher mutual gains.
*Ms Marie Desbonnets is a third year student of political science at Sciences Po Lyon, Lyon, France and was the second international intern at the National Maritime Foundation (NMF), New Delhi, India. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was also published in the March-April 2020 issue of South Asia Defence and Strategic Review and is hosted on the NMF website with due permission.