France and India: Two Nuances of 'Strategic Autonomy'

“We know India will be a very difficult superpower—like a big France.” This comment by a former deputy national security advisor of Japanese prime minister Abe Shinzo echoes a widely shared sentiment across G7 capitals. This is also certainly what many think in the United States vis-à-vis these two indispensable, yet volatile partners.

In collective fora, France and India indeed take pride in not being free riders, as nuclear powers with robust national militaries and capacities, as well as in being free thinkers, developing an outlook of their own on global issues. French president Emmanuel Macron’s motto “allied, but not aligned” echoes Indian external affairs minister Dr. S. Jaishankar’s insistence that India is “entitled to have its own side” This posture is best encapsulated in a concept that both countries have regularly been using: “strategic autonomy,” defined as the capability to make decisions independent from external pressure, especially from great powers, in the main policy areas. This commonality is regularly emphasized in bilateral encounters between the two states.

The visit of Indian prime minister Narendra Modi as a guest of honor for France’s National Day on July 14, also known as Bastille Day, will be an occasion to showcase the strength and depth of the bilateral relationship. France and India established a strategic partnership in 1998, but this partnership has really gained traction in the past decade, with close cooperation initiated or enhanced on a wide range of issues, including in sensitive and sovereign domains, buttressed by a flourishing defense trade cooperation that has placed France as India’s second-largest arms supplier after Russia. Modi’s visit will be the occasion for new announcements in the fields of defense, space, and nuclear technology.

The visit will also be an occasion for both countries to reaffirm how a shared quest for strategic autonomy is guiding this partnership. Their differing histories and geographies bring nuances and distinct threat perceptions, notably regarding the war in Ukraine and relations with Russia and China. But their overall like-minded vision on multipolarity and multilateralism offers great potential to expand cooperation and advance an original outlook, with one eye in Europe and the other in Asia.

The Roots of French and Indian Strategic Autonomy

Strategic autonomy has been central to the two states’ foreign policies since the late 1940s. In the French context, French president Charles de Gaulle wanted more autonomy vis-à-vis the United States. One direct application of this was France’s decision to leave NATO’s military command structure in 1966, though it remained a member of the alliance. In addition, de Gaulle pleaded for a dialogue with the Soviet Union, recognized the People’s Republic of China in 1964, and argued for the need for France to maintain the control of the strike capacity of its nuclear weapons.

Following independence, India, under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, espoused a similar conviction in absolute sovereignty to maintain complete autonomy in international affairs, put into practice through the doctrine of nonalignment and neutrality from great power politics. India also developed its own indigenous nuclear program with an aim to develop energy and strategic autonomy. While contributing to the creation of the Non-Aligned Movement, India also remained a member of the British Commonwealth, negotiated defense equipment procurement from the United Kingdom and the United States, and later developed a strong partnership with the Soviet Union.

Concurrently, the shared understanding that strategic autonomy and sovereignty is only possible with strong indigenous capacities in key sectors has led to Indo-French cooperation in nuclear and space research since the 1950s. India’s defense contracts with France illustrated New Delhi and Paris’s common aim at maximizing their strategic autonomy. From India’s perspective, there has been a willingness to diversify its procurement sources beyond Russia. Political reliability and trust have been decisive criteria in choosing France as a prime partner. Defense deals have been determined not solely on the basis of the operational qualities of French equipment, but on guarantees that France will not stop the supply of spare parts and weapons, which other suppliers have not guaranteed. Third, India has wanted to transform its defense ties beyond buyer-seller relationships and to pursue opportunities for technological cooperation for co-development and coproduction of defense equipment, notably with France.

Over the last three decades, strategic autonomy has therefore been a feature of Indian and French foreign policies and has led both states to pursue closer, but not exclusive, ties with Washington while at times also developing ties with states that have been at odds with the United States, like Iran or Russia. Both states have historically lamented the rise of a bipolar order during the Cold War and of a unipolar order in the 1990s, while selectively aligning with great powers on specific instances, such as India’s support for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, or France’s participation in the Iraq war in 1991 (but not in 2003).

Strategic Autonomy in the Modi and Macron Era

Like their predecessors, Modi and Macron have fostered strong links with major powers without becoming overly dependent on any one of them, maintaining distance from Cold War–style bloc competition. Both countries are more integrated in collective defense or security frameworks than they used to be 70 years ago, but Modi’s India remains formally opposed to joining a military alliance, while Macron’s is regularly critical of NATO, in a very Gaullist manner.

Modi has pursued autonomy by enhancing India’s nuclear weapons profile and building military and economic networks with multiple great powers such as the United States, France, and Japan. The resultant escalation of India’s standing from a struggling developing nation to an emerging economy and further to a rising power has given it a seat at numerous tables such as the four-nation Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or “Quad,” with Australia, Japan, and the United States), the BRICS grouping (with Brazil, Russia, China, and South Africa), the G20, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and bolstered its claim to permanent membership of the UN Security Council. France is in an opposite position of having to justify its presence at almost every table, being today the only country that is a member of the G7, the UN Security Council, NATO, and the European Union. Paris thus compensates for its relative economic decline with important diplomatic activism, which has included a flurry of initiatives such as the European Political Community, the Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace, and the recently held Paris Summit for a New Global Financial Pact, to name a few.

Modi and Macron also have a shared aspiration to be “balance shapers,” not followers. Like Nehru and de Gaulle earlier, they favor a multipolar international order—one that allows no single power to be dominant and offers New Delhi and Paris the prospects of a major role in shaping the global agenda. To help them achieve their ambitions and to diminish their dependence on great powers, France and India both strive to build new, flexible partnerships. Indian policy has focused on a network of strategic partnerships characterized by defense cooperation that encompasses arms transfers, military exercises, and intelligence sharing but steers clear of integrating forces and war plans. Similarly, France is also closing ranks with selected partners to complement collective commitments within NATO or the European Union, via bilateral mutual defense clauses and via coalitions of European countries outside of the EU framework, such as the former Takuba grouping of special forces in the Sahel or the European Maritime Awareness operation in the Strait of Hormuz (EMASOH).

Strategic convergence between France and India is therefore obvious, but there are some limitations and nuances. First, although President Macron is keen on insisting on French history and advancing French soft power, Macron’s vision does not parallel the ideological revivalism of Modi’s India as a civilizational state through Hindutva (a right-wing ideology seeking to define Indian culture and nation around the values of Hinduism, literally meaning Hindu-ness). Second, and more practically, in terms of military readiness, though the contemporary Indian state has tended to be coercive internally, its external policies have been the opposite. India has not hesitated to employ force against combative neighbors like China and Pakistan, but it has exercised remarkable constraint, eschewing external intervention. By contrast, France has deployed its troops in numerous missions and operations through the European Union, NATO, and ad hoc coalitions.

Applied Strategic Autonomy 

The conceptual like-mindedness around strategic autonomy translates into comparable foreign policies for France and India, especially in regard to their relations with major powers including the United States, China, and Russia.

Both countries have complex, often misunderstood relationships with the United States. They both aspire to a degree of independence from Washington policies, while being aware of their reliance on the United States for their defense and security. Therefore, critics of U.S. policies within Paris and Delhi are often seen as ungrateful by advocates of consolidated transatlantic and Indo-Pacific ties. But what the latter fail to capture is the vested U.S. interest in having capable and autonomous partners in key regions, even at the cost of painful diplomatic engagement and coordination. The best testament to this need to carefully cultivate these partnerships is that Macron and Modi are two of the three world leaders that have been invited by the Biden administration for state visits in Washington (along with South Korean president Yoon Suk Yeol).

Modi’s visit to Paris is expected to give a boost to India’s quest for equipment diversification and defense indigenization. There is widespread speculation over possible announcements on India’s procurement of Dassault Rafale multirole fighters and Scorpène-class submarines, as well as agreements on technology transfer.

The real stress test for Franco-Indian strategic cohesion lies in their respective assessment of how to engage other major, problematic, powers such as China and Russia. Locked in a military stand-off with Beijing in the Himalayas since April 2020, India has admitted that its relations with China are “not normal.” In April, President Macron sparked a major controversy across Western capitals and drew praise from Beijing when he reinvoked the idea of strategic autonomy following his pomp-heavy state visit to China. Notably, Macron suggested that Europe should not adapt itself to an American pace and a Chinese overreaction over the Taiwan issue, effectively calling on the European Union to steer clear of “crises that are not ours.” In addition to Macron displaying openness to expanding business ties with China and seeking China’s mediatory role in the Ukraine conflict, this visit has been portrayed as a form of French leniency toward Beijing, which could be a source of concern for Delhi. But reactions in Washington and New Delhi were mild as, in practice they work together closely on balancing their shared rival, China, in this region. 

In fact, the Indo-Pacific concept has provided a useful frame for the thriving Franco-Indian relations. France, more than the other Quad partners, has a direct interest in the stability of the Indian Ocean, thanks to its overseas territories in the southern Indian Ocean and military bases in the northern Indian Ocean, Djibouti, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). This has given way to fruitful bilateral cooperation, enshrined in the Joint Strategic Vision of India-France Cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region adopted in 2018. Paris and New Delhi are also stepping up their joint engagement with like-minded partners, through trilateral formats with Australia and the UAE and strategic partnerships with countries such as Greece and Egypt. Not only do these Indo-French partnerships underline linkages between the Indo-Pacific and the Mediterranean, they also complement a traditionally Washington-led security architecture in the region, while enhancing regional economic integration, together with “mini-lateral” partnerships such as the I2U2 (India, Israel, the UAE, and the United States).

Respective strategic autonomy can also lead to dissonance, such as in France’s and India’s positions on the war in Ukraine. France has continued to extend political, financial, humanitarian, and military support to Ukraine. It has vociferously condemned Russia’s military intervention and supported multiple rounds of sanctions against Moscow. Concurrently, President Macron has repeatedly called on “fence sitters” to take sides in this conflict of global implications, including in a resounding speech to the UN General Assembly. Despite its rapidly growing ties with the United States and Europe, India, as an energy-deficient developing country, resisted pressure to stop purchases of discounted oil from its traditional partner, Russia. At the same time, in veiled attempts to criticize Russia, Prime Minister Modi told President Putin that today’s era is not one of war and has repeatedly called for peaceful resolution to the conflict, including from the floor of the U.S. Congress.

Beyond strategic competition, the two countries also strive to be identified as leaders among the “middle powers” and in redefining multilateralism. While India has been strengthening its partnerships with countries identified as part of “the West,” it continues to safeguard its diplomatic maneuverability by remaining actively involved in organizations such as BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization where Moscow and Beijing hold significant sway. India has been attending G7 meetings of advanced economies while using its G20 presidency to champion the interests of the developing world. Earlier this year, India hosted a first-of-a-kind summit of 125 Global South countries, which aimed to shed light on the disproportionate impact of global shock—from Covid-19 to the war in Ukraine—felt by the Global South. Even as France faces challenges in its ties with the Global South, particularly its former African colonies, it has been working on addressing gaps in the global financial architecture that disadvantage the developing world with the New Global Financing Pact. Together, the two are strengthening the multilateral architecture through organizations such as the International Solar Alliance, with a focus on transnational challenges.

Conclusion

A shared historical struggle to maintain strategic autonomy in a complex geopolitical landscape has helped both powers develop a degree of trust and a pragmatic partnership. Interestingly, both find the other partner valuable but not enough to develop a relationship of interdependence.

France is strong enough to have something to offer on the diplomatic, military, space, and nuclear sectors to India, but not strong enough to shape international order, norms, or rules, or to balance China if tensions escalate. For France, India is important, but not the most important partner when it comes to trade and defense cooperation in the context of threats like Russian aggression or terrorism in Africa.

Modi’s visit to Paris is therefore another important milestone to consolidate the Franco-Indian special relationship, but the latter remains unlikely to evolve into a proper military alliance. This fits with the objective of both states to maintain some strategic flexibility. Indeed, genuine strategic autonomy implies restrictions even to the closest of partnerships. 

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Mathieu Droin
Visiting Fellow, Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program

Rajesh Basrur

Adjunct Professor, Griffith University

Nicolas Blarel

Associate Professor, Leiden University

Jyotsna Mehra

Foreign Affairs Analyst