France and India: Allies in the Ocean



France and India  have historical ties dating back to the colonial era and built on those ties at the end of the Cold War. This historical friendship is paying dividends for India’s national security. Cooperation between India and France is expected to leap forward with the signing of a defense logistics agreement between the two states in March. This agreement will vastly improve India’s naval strategy by allowing India to use French naval bases and ports throughout the Indian Ocean. This further cements India’s growing presence in the Indo-Pacific and compliments the current Indian maritime strategy going forward.

The potential agreement with France would allow India to access French naval bases in the Reunion Islands west of Mauritius as well as the French base in Djibouti. Access to the French base in the Reunion Islands will allow India to maintain a presence and project power in the southwestern Indian Ocean at the same time that India is constructing bases in Seychelles on Assumption Island and in Mauritius on Agalega Island. This allows India to counter China’s growing presence in the region while its bases are still under construction. Furthermore, access to the French base in Djibouti would give India another port from which to stage naval operations such as counter-piracy patrols and operations in the Gulf of Aden and the western Indian Ocean.

France and India have a long history of military cooperation in the Indian Ocean dating back to the end of the Cold War. Their relationship was cemented in 1998 with the establishment of the Strategic Partnership. The islands of Mayotte and La Reunion are French territories with nearly a million French citizens living on the islands, and the French navy has a permanent presence in the region. India and France are committed to freedom of navigation and have joined the international effort to fight piracy in the area.

The two nations have been conducting the annual Varuna joint naval exercises since 2001 which have grown larger and more complex as both militaries’ capabilities evolve. France has also supplied India with more technologically advanced weapon systems such as the Rafale fighter jet and Scorpene-class submarines.

Additionally, both countries view the expanse of China in the region as potential threat to sea lane communication following the Chinese claims to the South China Sea. Chinese submarines have been spotted in the Indian Ocean, and China has established a chain of bases around India, often referred to by Indian strategists as China’s ‘string of pearls’ strategy.

Currently, China maintains a military base in Djibouti and is constructing a naval base in the Pakistani city of Jiwani which is west of Gwadar where China seeks to build additional infrastructure for the port city through the One Belt, One Road Initiative. China’s presence in the Indian Ocean may be a welcome sight for anti-piracy efforts, but these bases can always be used to seize unclaimed reefs and islands throughout the Indian Ocean where natural resources might be present. China could also use bases throughout the Indian Ocean to harass shipping and fishing vessels that approach territory claimed by China.

France understands that empowering India in the Indo-Pacific is critical to “freedom of navigation” and “open seas”. France denounced China’s construction of bases and islands in the disputed South China Sea, and has escalated its cooperation with partners such as India and Japan. French Defense Minister Florence Parly recently traveled to Japan to affirm France’s commitment to “freedom of navigation” and stated "Just because you plant your flag somewhere doesn't mean that territory changes hands.”

Cooperation between Indian and French forces regarding maritime security in the Indo-Pacific will help promote freedom of navigation. Continued military drills demonstrate that both nations are committed to peace and security within the Indian Ocean and will oppose any aggression be it from non-state or state actors. Future cooperation between these partners could involve shared research and development on projects such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or undersea drones. In addition, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance cooperation between India and France can be better coordinated to monitor Chinese ships and bases for any provocative deployments and provide increasingly useful intelligence in the event of armed conflict.