Normally when a European leader visits India; the major focus is on trade and investment. French President Emmanuel Macron’s India visit has the potential to become truly strategic. Today, India has more than 30 strategic partners. However, the first-ever strategic partnership signed by New Delhi was with France in 1998. Since then, a strong institutional mechanism has been established covering joint defence exercises, space and civil-nuclear cooperation, counter-terrorism, maritime security, as well as dialogues among defence chiefs and National Security advisers. The decision to purchase Rafale jets has further strengthened these ties. Unlike commercial exchanges, closer defence ties indicate convergence of views on broader geopolitical environment.
Europe is changing. Post-Brexit, Britain’s role is set to decline within Europe. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is busy sorting out political difficulties at home. This is helping French President Macron to emerge as a de facto European leader. Trump’s isolationist ‘America first’ policy has provided a further space to France. After Brexit, France will be the only nuclear power and the only permanent member of the UNSC within the EU. Last September, in his big speech on Europe at Paris’ Sorbonne University, he presented a vision to take deadlocked EU out of crisis and towards greater integration. Similar to Charles De Gaulle and François Mitterrand, he also seems to believe that a strong and united Europe could be used as a tool to improve the French position in world affairs. A trusted India-France partnership could be used to shape India-EU ties and evolving geopolitics in Asia and the world.
Just a few weeks ago, Macron completed a high-profile visit to China and promised that he is determined to ‘get the Europe-China relationship into the 21st Century.’ Although he is in favour of China and Europe working together on Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative (BRI), he asserted that the Silk Roads ‘were never only Chinese’, and ‘by definition, these roads can only be shared.’ So apart from traditional subjects, Macron’s India visit will be an opportunity for India and Europe to develop common responses to the Chinese BRI. Already increasing cooperation on maritime security in the Indian Ocean Region will be discussed and strengthened. Some further movement on the Jaitapur nuclear power project is also expected. The founding summit of the International Solar Alliance will bring India and Europe further closer on climate change, an issue with huge political support within the EU.
Both India and France are important for each other for trade, investment and defence purchases. Since India-EU FTA negotiations are deadlocked since 2013, the focus is already slowly shifting to other areas. The Macron visit will be a good opportunity to evaluate the importance of changing Europe in Indian foreign policy and strategic calculations. Europe has strong economic linkages with China. Still, in the evolving global geopolitics and security and economic architecture in Asia, France and Europe may share more with India than with China.