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Address by External Affairs Minister at French Institute of International Relations on ‘How India sees France’

February 23, 2022

Director Thomas Gomart, Dear Friends

It is a great pleasure to be at IFRI. The work that you and other institutions in France do provides valuable insights into French and European perspectives of our changing world, especially important because of the role that Europe and France are expected to play in the world.

As India and France seek to deepen the partnership and set higher ambitions for their relationship, including in the Indo Pacific region, there is a clear need to intensify the conversation between and with the strategic communities in both countries. I am glad that IFRI is developing institutional partnerships in India.

I am also pleased to share my thoughts on how India sees France. It is particularly appropriate that I am doing so following a bilateral meeting with Foreign Minister Le Drian, Defence Minister Parly and the Indo Pacific Ministerial Forum for which I came here. These occasions captured the strategic priorities that provide a compelling framework of what I believe is a truly unique partnership between India and France.

So, this question, how does India see France? Well succinctly put, I would say, as a major power with a global outlook and an independent mindset. One, that is central to multipolarity and rebalancing. Equally important, one that is extremely responsive to India’s concerns and priorities. That has a long history as a trusted partner. And one which is becoming even more relevant as we jointly address contemporary and emerging challenges. That we have now entered an era of turbulence gives this partnership a still greater salience in international relations.

The world is today in the midst of multiple crises, including one in Europe. It is taking place against the backdrop of profound geopolitical, geo-economic and technological changes. The widespread disruption of the pandemic has sharpened, perhaps even accelerated these trends. Taken together, these developments have generated new challenges to the international order. We no longer have the comfort of the familiar.

In response, all nations are reappraising priorities, strategies, relationships and even strategic geography. We scramble every day to adapt to the rapid changes in the environment. Often, long standing assumptions have to be revisited.

In this era of growing uncertainty, polities are searching for reliable and resilient partners. Those with shared values and common vision obviously fit the bill more perfectly. That is certainly the case with France and India.

Especially in the last two decades, India has transformed many of its relationships, in its extended neighbourhood as much as at the global level. Our relationship with France, though, is one that bridges multiple generations. History is certainly an asset for this particular account. What is now happening is a shared endeavour to take it to a still higher level. I can assert with genuine confidence that it is the strongest now since our journey as an independent nation began 75 years ago.

Through the tumult of our times, India’s relations with France have continued to move forward on a steady and clear course. It is a relationship that has been free from sudden shifts and surprises that we sometimes see in other cases. Indeed, these ties have continuously adapted to change and come out stronger for that.

In India, there is a great sense of trust and confidence in the relationship. It is deeply institutionalised and benefits from a strong political consensus on its importance. I believe that we have seen the same here in France.

There is, of course, the shared belief in democracy and universal human values. We both have an abiding faith in independent thinking and a deep conviction that our interests are best served in a multipolar order.

Our shared faith in national capabilities has its roots in our respective conception of ourselves. It speaks of a belief in our civilizational heritage and worldview that has run through the changing course of our histories. It produces what I would call a distinctively unique way of looking at global developments. When it comes to our relationship, it has instilled confidence that we will intuitively relate to each other, without letting other influences shape our choices.

As India sees France, there is a lot in history that positively shapes its perceptions. There are current developments, too, that add to the nature and quality of our convergence. As we look ahead, shared interests and common beliefs are creating an ambitious agenda for our expanding partnership. Allow me to explain that with some examples.

Let us start with the basics. An independent India too had the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity as its foundational principles of the Republic. These have guided our respective approaches to governance and to society. Whether it is the objective of creating a more just and empowered society or meeting challenges like terrorism, there is a natural empathy between us.

In our own ways, after India’s independence and in French post-war revival, we put great premium on achieving self-reliance. This was driven by a faith in ourselves as well as an assessment of the global order. Our efforts were also aimed at making greater contribution to global good. The exercise of sovereignty and building of strategic autonomy went hand in hand. That approach has a new relevance today, given the dangers posed by centralized globalization and vulnerable supply chains. Indeed, those with a similar outlook can collaborate to enhance trust and transparency in the global economy, thereby de-risking it significantly.

India has regarded France as a global power for a variety of reasons. Obviously, one of them is a permanent seat in the UN Security Council. But in addition, France had a footprint and an influence in far corners of the world and weighed in on key global issues. What was noteworthy was that despite being a member of an alliance, France has never hesitated to voice its own positions. And it has done so with an ideal mix of understanding and realism. This lack of dogmatism has contributed to building a strong partnership with a rising power like India. We saw that, for example, when it came to a complex issue like accommodating India in the global nuclear order.

The Third Way that France long symbolised has naturally been of interest to an India that was devising its own path in global affairs. During the Cold War era of a divided world, this flexibility expanded the basis for our cooperation. Bluntly put, this came without ideological baggage. That tradition has now taken on a more modern incarnation. Indeed, the independent strands that we each represented have become building blocks of the multipolar world.

The trust that we have built over the years is an outcome of a similar outlook, national beliefs and an appreciation of the importance of our relationship. From a strategic point of view, that is expressed in cooperation in defence, space and civil nuclear energy. These domains have witnessed shared endeavours for many decades but have now increased in depth and in complexity.

In the area of defence, our first acquisition of French fighter aircraft was in the early 1950s. Since then, succeeding generations of French aircraft and other platforms and equipment have been an integral part of the Indian military force. India therefore has strong reason to see France as a critical partner for its national security.

France was also an important influence in the development of India’s strategic thinking, especially its nuclear force posture. Indeed, the very concept of credible minimum deterrence was derived from the learnings of French experience. Not just that, after the 1998 nuclear tests, France was the first nuclear power to show an understanding of our strategic compulsions.

So it was no surprise that Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee made Paris his first bilateral stop after the nuclear tests. Along with President Chirac, he launched the Strategic Partnership between our two countries that still serves us well today. French support played an important role in India getting an exemption from the Nuclear Suppliers Group in 2008 to resume international cooperation in civil nuclear energy.

In the UN Security Council and other international forums, where competing and complex sets of interests affect choices of members, France has been reliable, strong and a consistent partner of India. Our synergies have enabled us, for example, to be more effective in mobilising UN action against terrorism and terrorist groups.

In the past few years, the uncertainties and disequilibrium of a world in transition have encouraged a stronger sense of common strategic purpose.

Let me highlight now some of the contemporary drivers of this partnership.

One is the future of the Indo Pacific region, where the centre of gravity of global opportunities and challenges increasingly lie. Developments there and ensuing regional order will have a direct impact across the world, including here in Europe. What is at stake is the credibility of a rules-based order and the efficacy of the international system.

India is at the strategic centre of this region; France represents its two bookends with a vast EEZ. India sees France as a resident power in the Indo Pacific region, vital for its peace and stability, and a premier partner for India.

We both seek a free, open and inclusive region. And, we both have multiple, inter-linked partnerships with a positive agenda to address the challenges and advance stability and security in the region.

Our partnership has multiple objectives. It aims to ensure that we can safeguard our interests, including the security of the sea lanes, freedom of navigation and the protection of the marine commons. We also work together, and with others with stakes in the region, to uphold international law and support the organic evolution of a rules-based regional architecture. Our cooperation also intends to create better options to countries in the region and enable them to make sovereign and free choices. They should neither be subjected to domination nor caught in a binary power rivalry.

For that, our partnership in trade, investment and connectivity, health and sustainability will matter as much as our cooperation in defence and security.

For these reasons, we also welcome the EU’s strategy for cooperation in the Indo Pacific region and appreciate deeply French leadership in encouraging and shaping a deep, comprehensive EU engagement with the Indo Pacific.

India and France pursue their Indo Pacific partnership through multiple channels. We work together bilaterally on regional security, economic and sustainability issues. We appreciate that France will chair one of the pillars of India’s Indo Pacific Oceans Initiative. We are evolving plurilateral inter-linked arrangements with strategic partners. This is visible in regional forums, including the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, the Indian Ocean Regional Association, the Indian Ocean Commission and in regional information fusion centres. It also extends to ASEAN-based institutions.

Another important strategic objective in our relationship is to work for a reformed and effective multilateralism. This is critical for India and France to achieve our ambitions and fulfil our aspirations. French support for the reform of the UN Security Council, including India’s permanent membership, has been strong.

We recognise that to strengthen multilateralism, faith and confidence in it must be restored. That is why India and France attach high importance to multilateral efforts for a quick and equitable delivery of Covid vaccines; addressing inequality, poverty, unemployment and indebtedness; and meeting the challenges of climate change and biodiversity conservation. The world we want to see reflects the society we wish to build.

Multilateralism is more than just institutions. It is a way of dealing with emerging challenges, both within and outside multilateral institutions. Both India and France prefer collective, consultatative and inclusive approaches over unilateral initiatives. The India-France led International Solar Alliance, which now has nearly 100 members, is an example. Whether it is climate change, disaster-resilient infrastructure, conservation of forests, illegal fishing or ban on single use plastic, our two countries have always reached out to each other to create a participative global movement.

Coming from two different parts of the world, with our own development journeys, and with the capacity to mobilise participation around initiatives, India and France can do much together. By working with third parties and focussed groupings, they promote plurilateralism that is so reflective of our times. Along with that, they strengthen multilateralism and together, help create stable multipolar order.

The third priority is in the digital domain. Digital technology will be an important determinant of our sovereignty, leadership, competitiveness and international relations in this century. Our two countries have advanced skills and technology, a high level of complementarity, similar thinking on creating a sovereign ecosystem and convergent views on data standards and security. Above all, we have the vital ingredients of trust and democratic values.

India is already the third largest start-up ecosystem in the world and a leader in creating public digital infrastructure. It offers scale and sophistication that can create productive partnerships for the next generation digital and telecommunication capabilities and standards. Our mutual trust also opens vast opportunities for cooperation in cyber security. And, together, we can also extend India’s transformative use of the digital infrastructure to change the lives of our people and support inclusive development elsewhere.

A fourth area is the economy. A multipolar world order requires a multipolar economic order. The pandemic has laid bare the concentration risk in international trade. Supply chains have become tools of political coercion. The prospects of technology de-coupling look real, even if they are in limited sectors. Therefore, building resilient and safe supply chains have become a national priority around the world and a key area of focus in international relations.

France has been an important bridge for us to the European Union. A key expectation today is French support for the launch of negotiations between India and the EU on trade and investments. A trusted corridor between the EU and India will enhance economic opportunities for both and serve our shared interests in a resilient and assured supply chain.

There are two areas of national interest for India where we look forward to France as a key partner. One is in the realm of defence and security. We see France as a trusted collaborator in countering security challenges from seabed to space, from cyber to oceans.

France is also among the foremost countries as India seeks to build industrial self-reliance in the defence sector, with a sense of urgency and priority. In this, we draw inspiration from the national self-sufficiency France has itself built. Naturally, given the history of our defence partnership, we are exploring ambitious ideas for collaborative ventures in India. This will support our common interests in the Indo Pacific region as well.

The other area is the transformation of our industrial sector. Like France, India, too, saw the erosion of its industrial base, and like France, we are determined to restore it, especially with emphasis on the industries of the future. The Indian economy is experiencing a strong rebound, with a growth of 9.2%. Rapid expansion of infrastructure is being accompanied by sustained reforms in the business environment and attractive production linked incentives in thirteen sectors. The political comfort and trust in our relationship adds to the attractiveness of India for French businesses.

To sum up, therefore, the agenda of our partnership is truly extensive. So, whether it is India’s own national transformation agenda, or the future of the Indo-Pacific region and its maritime commons, the advancement of plurilateralism or the reform of multilateralism, or indeed addressing global challenges, we count on France as amongst our most important partners.

Over the past two years, despite the constraints of the pandemic, we have maintained an intense and wide-ranging bilateral engagement.

It is not difficult for either of us to enter new territories of cooperation, because of trust and transparency, the comfort of consistency in our relations and the belief in independent thinking and action.

I am confident that as we both go forward, this partnership will be a strong asset for our countries and the global order that we both wish to see.

Thank you for your attention. I look forward to the discussion.

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