Macron’s India visit: France replaces UK as Delhi’s main European partner?

President Macron’s much heralded recent India visit may well prove to be a seminal moment in the post Brexit discourse. It signifies a new bilateral India-France special relationship with many geopolitical and economic implications.

While many positive comparisons were made in the Indian and Western media with Canadian PM Trudeau’s earlier disastrous visit (Modi actually personally greeted Macron at Delhi airport with a trademark bear hug, unlike Trudeau who was received by a junior minister), the real strategic significance will be India and France establishing what appears to be a new ‘special relationship’ centred on high technology trade and Indian Ocean security. Agreements between the two powers to share logistics and access each other’s bases will make it much easier for France to establish itself as a more significant Indian Ocean power – an issue that is important to Paris given continued worries over the behaviour of China and the proximity of millions of French citizens to it – particularly in the islands of Reunion and Mayotte. It may also have given Monsieur Macron much pleasure to gain over £16bn of trade deals with Delhi while still being at the heart of the EU, which will no doubt add to the fierce Brexit debate in the UK.

The evolving security Indo-French relationship bears further scrutiny because India’s traditional partner in defence had been Russia. It may well be a sign of Indian exasperation over Russian unreliability in areas such as timely delivery, spares and customer support in military technology that India is looking abroad for more defence partners. There have been many such examples of increased Russian tardiness in recent years, the most prominent being the costly multiyear delay in refurbishing and delivering the old Admiral Gorshkov aircraft carrier. This warship that was meant to arrive in India 2008 only finally entered service in 2013. It is clear that India is looking to move away from using Russian military technology, as evidenced by the decision to purchase French built Rafale jets (even as the expense of cancelling an Indo-Russian stealth fighter) and Scorpene submarines. The former is still the subject of some controversy in India over still unproven corruption allegations levelled at the Modi government by the opposition Congress party. Nonetheless the defence relationship between Delhi and Paris is likely to become stronger over time.

One of the key rationales for this strong bilateral relationship is the fundamental belief in multi polarity that espoused by both France and Delhi. That is the world must have several poles of power, rather than just one. Of course this is a thinly veiled reference to the United States and the hegemonic role which it has played over the past 70 odd years. However it also reflects the desire to balance the rise of China, an issue which is increasingly important to India and has some significance for France for many reasons. Chief among these is the concept of freedom of navigation – that no one power can claim control of trade and movement along international waters. Challenging illegitimate Chinese claims in the South China seas is likely a key aim for Paris, and a strong presence in the Indian Ocean helps to achieve this. India and France signing deals to share logistics and give access to one another’s naval bases may also be significant in this regard.

M Macron’s reference to Brexit was mischievous but also underlined his main point that one could be part of the EU and still sign mega trade deals. Britain has traditionally seen itself as having the strongest relationship with India, partly thanks to its role as the former colonial ruler. However the possibility now exists that France could replace the UK as Delhi’s main strategic partner, undoubtedly to some chagrin in Whitehall. Ironically one of the reasons for this may be the perceived end of Britain’s role as India’s gateway to Europe as London leaves the EU. There are still strong reasons for Delhi to engage London, such as counter-terrorism and the large British Indian diaspora but the concept of a special relationship between India and the UK as espoused by former UK PM David Cameron may be stillborn. That role looks like being taken over by France. Recharging the UK-India relationship will be an interesting challenge for the current incumbent of 10 Downing St. Theresa May will need some luck given the French inroads into India.

From defence and Indian Ocean security to helping build Indian energy infrastructure (Macron came to attend an international Solar Alliance meeting, a brainchild of the energetic and inventive Indian PM Modi) French Indian interests strongly converge. It will have a strategic impact on both Europe and Asia, as people to people ties between France and India improve.