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The India and France bonhomie has potential for expansion with the Gulf
The India–France dynamic has moved forward at a rapid pace over the past few years, finding common goals on global issues — including the Indo-Pacific.
On 20 January 2021, the air forces of India and France began a five-day long exercise at the Jodhpur air force base in Rajasthan. More than just being one more example of growing defence ties between Paris and New Delhi, which was underlined in July 2020 when the first batch of the Indian Air Force’s Dassault Rafale fighter jets arrived amidst much fanfare, this expedited delivery by France as India faced the most dangerous Chinese aggression in Ladakh in decades helped cement growing Indian confidence for the French further. The India–France dynamic has moved forward at a rapid pace over the past few years, finding common goals on global issues, including the Indo-Pacific, where France has said that “a free and open Indo-Pacific is a natural shared goal.” The relationship has blossomed at such a pace, that analysts have even questioned whether India’s partnership with France could eclipse its ties with the US.
Even with Europe’s late awakening with regard to China’s fast-growing ambitions in the Indian Ocean and West Asia (Middle East) alike, the Arabian Sea is not far from these aims, spilling over into every actor’s Indo-Pacific narratives, from trade routes and energy security to regional security and counterterrorism from a maritime perspective. While the potential of Indo-French partnerships is significant, it is still a good time to remind the reader that the bilateral bonhomie is based on interests and not fantasies of unquestioned friendship or ideological convergence. To put it in perspective, for Paris, India is a vast market for defence sales, a hyper-competitive space where French companies have struggled. For New Delhi, it is the same — a market to procure increasingly critical military technologies as India struggles with its indigenous defence industries and increasingly strained defence budgets.
"The bilateral bonhomie is based on interests and not fantasies of unquestioned friendship or ideological convergence."
Expanding partnerships around the Indo-Pacific narratives is arguably a pivotal opportunity for India to expand strategic cooperation further with West Asia. According to one report, the next batch of three Indian Rafale jets, being delivered to India from France, will be refueled mid-air by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Air Force, adding another feather to the fledging relations between not just Abu Dhabi and New Delhi but also the entire Gulf region and India in general. The cocktail of marketing and geopolitical tactic employed here by France is skillful — getting Abu Dhabi, a strategic partner of France as well, to refuel India’s Rafale jets using UAE’s Airbus KC-30A MRTT tankers is an example that is also being offered to the Indian Air Force by France and is currently visiting Jodhpur as well.
Much like Europe itself (up to a certain extent at least), hedging its bets in the Indo-Pacific debate to protect a rules-based order, the Gulf countries are also going through a rapid change, with economic realities often taking precedence in geopolitical decision-making than sectarian politics, theology, or even longstanding traditional ties. The tensions between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and an increasingly bullish Chinese influence in the Gulf economies as leverage against the US standing tall serve as examples.
"The UAE increasingly appears to be a more palatable partner in West Asia, one that is working simultaneously towards rapid economic growth while shunning political Islam in its region of influence."
Leading the construct of an India–France–UAE trilateral could be beneficial for New Delhi on multiple fronts. First, the UAE and France already have close political and military relations, including more criticised foreign policy convergences such as Paris and Abu Dhabi’s role in the Libyan Civil War and their common interest in backing General Khalifa Haftar. On the other hand, despite anomalies, both France and the UAE have taken pragmatic approaches on issues such as Kashmir, with the government of President Emmanuel Macron even reportedly suggesting that his government would no longer service or upgrade French weapon platforms currently operating with Pakistan (including Mirage III/V fighter jets and submarines).
This is not only Paris’s posturing for New Delhi on Pakistan but also an alternative narrative building on what Moscow, a traditional defence market space, has to offer India after initial reports that Russia would consider selling arms to Pakistan (Moscow has since clarified it will not do so after Defense Minister Rajnath Singh’s visit in September 2020). For Macron, who was vehemently criticised by Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan and Turkish President Recep Erdoğan when he publicly stated to fight “Islamist separatism” after a French schoolteacher was beheaded in October last year by an Islamist terrorist, the fault lines were getting clearer. The UAE increasingly appears to be a more palatable partner in West Asia, one that is working simultaneously towards rapid economic growth while shunning political Islam in its region of influence. With Abu Dhabi’s main regional partner, Saudi Arabia, also showing intent towards a more liberalised economic and social order to secure its future beyond oil, the role of Islam itself in the thinking of both these states is being revisited, and the likes of Turkey, Pakistan, and Malaysia are looking to fill the vacuum being left behind as the new vanguards of Islam. Emily Hawthorne, an analyst with Stratfor offers a good articulation from a Saudi perspective: “Saudis might see that becoming more of an economically focused modernised nation as more important than continuing to nurture that leadership role in the broader Muslim world. It’s a gamble, but it might turn out well for them in terms of earning Saudi Arabia some clout,” she said.
"Joint economic cooperation between Indian and French companies is well set up to find common ground in the Gulf to build further economic partnerships."
Second, amidst these developments, the Emiratis have been favouring Indian professionals for employment positions in the country, on account of better trained manpower, increasing markers of India’s economic growth for the Gulf’s economic future, and next to no cases of radicalisation from Indian Muslims working in the region. These developments have taken place in tandem with the UAE suspending issuance of visas to Pakistan on security concerns along with adding extra pressure on Islamabad by seeking an early repayment of a US $3 billion loan that the UAE gave in 2018. Joint economic cooperation between Indian and French companies is well set up to find common ground in the Gulf to build further economic partnerships in areas such as energy, technology, finance, and so on, with benefits available for all three regions.
Finally, for India, a close partnership with France can also be beneficial on a third front — Iran. With the new administration of President Joe Biden already moving towards returning the US to a multitude of alliances and agreements that Trump pulled the US out of, including the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, France, along with the rest of Europe, is expected to play a critical role in re-establishing the JCPOA order. For New Delhi, which played its (limited) role in prodding Tehran in 2014-15 on the benefits of such an agreement with the West, a stable Iran is critical for another crisis point, Afghanistan. With the US now dropping its number of troops in Afghanistan to 2,500 and a yet unclear plan on the crisis by the Biden administration, India will require to work its strategies with other regional actors more aggressively, including Iran, to protect its interests. The UAE, which maintains much more balanced relations with Tehran than its bigger neighbour Saudi Arabia, realises that with its globalised position as a major center for trade and finance, the risks of being caught in a conflict with Iran, which could set its economy and society back by decades, are far too great. Keeping this in mind, the UAE was perhaps the only Gulf country other than Qatar (which at that time was facing an economic blockade orchestrated by Saudi Arabia and the UAE) to send aid to Iran more than once as COVID-19 ravaged the country.
"For India, a close partnership with France can also be beneficial on a third front — Iran."
These overlapping interests make for a potential France-India-UAE trilateral ecosystem palatable, both from a geopolitical and geoeconomic perspective. The main takeaway for New Delhi on these anomalies, especially on the Gulf’s shunning of Pakistan, is not entirely that it is exclusive to India’s vindication of its stand to not internationalise the Kashmir issue, but the fact that the likes of Saudi Arabi, the UAE, and even France, are in fact betting on the Indian economy.
To keep the possibilities of these trilaterals and the rise of minilaterals as a diplomacy design realistic, it will mean a blinkered agenda for India, one of to keep its economy on the path of healthy and steady growth, and to avoid the temptations of conflict as a political tool, whether across the border or within its own borders.
Kabir Taneja (ORF)
29 January 2021
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