France and India in the Indo-Pacific: An Essential Partnership in Challenging Times (September 15, 2022)


Speech by Catherine Colonna at ORF - Mumbai - 15 September 2022

Ladies and gentlemen,
Dear Professor Pant,
Monsieur l’Ambassadeur,
Monsieur le Consul général,
Dear friends,
Bonjour à toutes et à tous,

It is a pleasure to be with you today.

I am grateful to the Observer Research Foundation for providing this unique opportunity to discuss our Indo-Pacific policies.
Coming to India as my first bilateral visit to Asia felt like a natural choice, as India is such an important partner for France in the region.
In January 2023, our two countries will celebrate the 25th anniversary of our strategic partnership and we are looking forward to it.
Some of you might know it, but I used to work for President Chirac at the time and I was there in India with him, in 1998, when this remarkable partnership was launched, and I can see now how far we have come in one generation time.
Quite a remarkable journey. And needless to say, we are determined to keep going further together.

What makes our partnership so strong is that it rests on a shared vision of international relations, as our two countries are both equally attached to the rule of law and multilateralism, both feeling highly independent, and both eager to retain our strategic autonomy. Since the State visit of President Macron in India in 2018, our bilateral partnership has acquired a new Indo-Pacific dimension, showing remarkably converging views about what needs to be done to address the challenges of the region.

yes, we are going through a time of renewed disorder – challenging indeed: the impact of climate change is more dramatic every day, we are still recovering from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, unfair practices undermining the global economy have multiplied, and last but not least, Russia’s illegal war against Ukraine has major global consequences on food and energy security as well as on inflation. In the Indo-Pacific, tensions are on the rise and an increased polarisation seriously threatens stability. The growing assertiveness of China, the increasing strategic competition between China and the United States have produced major transformations and disruptions, which pose serious challenges throughout the region.

We are keenly aware, in France and in Europe, that a great part of our strategic, economic, demographic, environmental future is being defined here and the various conversations I had yesterday with Prime Minister Modi, Dr. Jaishankar and also with NSA Doval confirmed that India also shares this evaluation. That is why we consider it essential that the Indo-Pacific should not become a confrontation ground between global powers, and we are aligned in this vision.
What is at stake is the very possibility to uphold what President Macron called “the liberty of sovereignty”. The Indo-French partnership is built on that endeavour, to maintain through cooperation the highest level of strategic autonomy. What is also at stake is our collective ability to tackle global challenges, which are critically at play here, in this region where beats the economic and demographic heart of the world.

We have every good reason to strengthen our partnerships with the countries of the region. And this is the path that France has followed with India, its oldest strategic partner in Asia. Because India is at the centre of these dynamics and has therefore a central role to play in the Indo-Pacific.

1/ First, I would like to stress the significance of the region for France.

India, as I have said, is at the forefront of the strategic evolutions of the Indo-Pacific. So is France. It is often overlooked that we are your neighbour. France is indeed a resident nation of both the Indian Ocean, and the Pacific. We have major interests in the Indo-Pacific. I am talking about economic interests, with overseas territories in the two oceans (La Réunion, Mayotte, les îles Eparses in the Indian Ocean, New Caledonia, French Polynesia and Wallis et Futuna in the Pacific, not to mention, territories in Antarctica). They account for 93% of France’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), the second largest in the world. Around 2 million French citizens are living in the Indo-Pacific.
I am also talking about security interests, as we maintain a permanent military presence, with more than 7,000 personnel stationed in our overseas territories, Djibouti and the UAE.
French territories provide cooperation platforms. Our forces there carry out sovereignty missions and take an active part, along with our many partners, in maritime surveillance and disaster relief operations for the benefit of neighbouring countries. Humanitarian assistance stocks are based there. Scientific research mission is done from there. And talking about our actions for the whole region, the French Development Agency for example has committed more than € 20 billion in the region. And India is one of the top recipients of our preferential loans.

So we are an Indo-Pacific nation, and it is as an Indo-Pacific nation that we have conceived our role in the region. To summarise I would say that the main ambition of French and EU’s strategies is to propose a model of cooperation to the region, promoting multilateralism, upholding the rule of law and international norms, supporting an open and fair environment for trade, supporting connectivity and green transition, and strengthening our response to global challenges.

We share the conviction with India that challenges in the Indo-Pacific should not be approached from a confrontational angle only. Most Indo-Pacific States do not want to be locked into a binary choice and even less to be part of a confrontational gear. Neither does France nor does the European Union.

When it comes to China, cooperation is needed, particularly on global issues, since trying to tackle major global challenges such as climate change without China would simply not make sense. Simultaneously, we also have to stand firmly on our interests and on our values. We are determined to uphold multilateralism, the respect of international law, of countries’ sovereignty and of Human Rights. We will continue to do so, along with our key partners in Europe and in the Indo-Pacific, without being naive and, believe me, we are not naive. Our eyes are wide open.

This is why I want to insist once more on the strong similarities between the EU approach of China - that is seeing simultaneously China as a cooperation partner, an economic competitor and a systemic rival - and the vision developed by many countries in the region.
Allow me also to stress that our vision is also multi dimensional, based on the recognition that we must address all the challenges at once: there are serious security challenges in the Indo-Pacific, but an exclusive focus on military competition would only increase tensions. It is equally essential that we address economic, development, and connectivity challenges. We must be more efficient also in tackling global issues such as climate change, the protection of biodiversity, sustainable management of the oceans, health challenges, in order to meet the expectations of many countries in both the Pacific and the Indian oceans.

2/ Let me come to my second point: this wide-ranging commitment in the Indo-Pacific region underpins the four “pillars” of our strategy: security and defence; economy and connectivity; multilateralism and the rule of law; climate change, biodiversity, sustainable management of the oceans.
Cooperation does not mean one should not seek to speak from a position of strength. In this regard, I could perhaps give you a couple of significant examples in the field of maritime security. The French Navy has organised regular ships and aircraft deployments in the Indian Ocean. We have not only intensified our joint exercises with India, we are now undertaking joint patrols at sea together, such as the one organised from Reunion Island between an Indian Air Force reconnaissance aircraft and one of our frigates. The progress we made together over the past 5 years in this field is impressive, and it is only the beginning. We intend to do more here, as I said earlier.

The other pillars of our strategy aim at providing a comprehensive development agenda of solutions to the challenges in the region. Let me focus on the common achievement with India in this respect by highlighting that our Blue Economy and Ocean governance cooperation, launched in February, is already very successful. In ten days from now, India will be the guest of honour at the Sea Tech Week in France, in Brest. I am also pleased to announce that in the coming weeks, France will second an expert to India’s National Institute of Ocean Technology in Chennai. France and India are also implementing together an “Indo-Pacific Natural Parks Partnership”.

France is not acting alone. The EU as a whole stands with us.

The publication in September 2021 of the EU strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific was a major milestone. France, I believe, has played a pivotal role to keep the momentum going by setting the Indo-Pacific as a priority of its Presidency of the EU Council during the first semester of this year, 2022. Together with the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, we co-organised a ministerial Forum for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, which took place in Paris on 22 February. It was the first meeting of its kind between the EU and Indo-Pacific countries at the ministerial level. And my counterpart, Dr Jaishankar, of course was very much involved in this. Since the 22nd February Forum, France has worked closely with the EU institutions and the Czech presidency took charge now, and the Swedish presidency comes soon, to make sure that the momentum is sustained. As often with the EU, it is a serious and comprehensive frame that is not trying to impress but will yield considerable results in the next decades. It’s a long-term strategy.

India is of course a key partner for the EU as well. In 2021, India and the EU held their first summit meeting, which is important for both sides, resumed negotiations on a Free Trade Agreement, and held an inaugural India-EU Maritime Security Dialogue. There is a great potential for further strengthening cooperation between India and the EU in the Indo-Pacific. One further example of that is the maritime security area, with the EU ambition to raise its security profile in the North-West of the Indian Ocean. The EU has launched a new initiative, which is called “Coordinated maritime presence” (CMP). It is mainly a maritime coordination mechanism, allowing increased information exchange and interaction with India and other partners.

3/ Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to conclude my remarks with my 3rd and last point: as the polarisation and the risk of destabilization increase, we need to do much more together.
The EU is there, it is already the first investor in the region, a major trade partner, a major provider in development and humanitarian assistance, a major contributor also to upholding the rule of law with you. We are determined to go much further. In the field of connectivity, for example, the Global Gateway initiative – adopted by the EU in December 2021 with an impressive budget pledge of 300 billion euros – offers a new framework to help reduce strategic dependencies and promote sustainable connectivity. It should, and therefore it will deliver on sustainable infrastructure projects in the region.
As far as France is concerned, we will also keep developing our strategic partnerships in the region bilaterally. The relationship with Australia, which had been, in the recent past, badly damaged by the way AUKUS was handled, is now off to a new start in this regard. It allows us to reset our trilateral exchanges with both India and Australia, which has great potential. We will have a meeting in New York next week at the Foreign Ministers’ level. We have in mind other such formats with shared partners, which can be useful. We are also discussing various joint cooperation projects with third countries in the Indian Ocean, in East Africa and in the Pacific. And we will step up our cooperation with regional organisations.

To conclude, let me say once more that there is a lot that India and France can achieve together, a lot that India and the EU can achieve together. I am convinced that our strategic partnership is more crucial than ever and will be more and more crucial for the stability and the future of the Indo Pacific. Let’s be bold. And I would like to quote Prime Minister Modi, who once said: our partnership is a “all-weather” partnership, one which should move at the speed of Rafale.

Vive la France, vive l’Inde, vive l’amitié franco-indienne, merci.