The visit is an opportunity for India to assess of the future of the European project and the challenges in the US-Europe transatlantic relationship.
French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to India from 9-12 March comes at a time when his country is back to being an important driver of Europe’s strategic push in the world.
His visit to India provides an opportunity to get an assessment of the future of the European project, the challenges in the US-Europe transatlantic relationship, and prospects of any fresh approach for dealing with an increasingly assertive China. The launch of the International Solar Alliance and the consolidation of the strategic aspects of the bilateral relationship in defence, space, and nuclear energy cooperation will provide the ballast.
For a decade or more, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was seen as the most influential leader in Europe. German policy preferences determined intra-European choices, as in dealing with the Greek debt crisis. It also provided leadership for the EU’s foreign policy strategy in the European context, as in the Ukrainian crisis and in the related approaches to Russia. Although France maintained a lead for Europe in dealing with “beyond the continent” issues, such as in Mali or Syria, the necessary Franco-German tandem was missing in the European context.
This has now changed.
Despite some setbacks, Macron has credibility and support within France. Angela Merkel has been weakened by the latest elections in Germany, and prolonged talks for setting up a new coalition government.
It is Macron who is providing the push for the next phase of the European project, even as Europe is grappling with potential consequences of Brexit, the rise of right-wing and ultra-nationalist sentiments, new leaders in eastern Europe seen as not following democratic norms, and Chinese influence preventing common European positions on many issues such as human rights in China and the South China Sea.
Macron has also been invited in April as the first state guest of the Trump administration in the US. This is a choice that US administrations make after some deliberation, and as a considered policy statement. The Obama administration had invited Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as its first state guest in 2009, as a signal to the Asia Pacific and of the new bilateral relationship forged post the 2008 civil nuclear deal.
The US-EU relationship continues to be volatile under Trump. European leaders see him as not providing the earlier commitment to the NATO-obligated defence of Europe. His assertions and policies are seen as going against the grain of the European project founded on democracy and liberalism. His latest move of imposing anti-dumping duties on steel and aluminium, even though targeted towards China, will also impact European suppliers, and will lead to retaliatory trade action.
The US and Europe will also need to work out a consolidated strategy for dealing with the economic, technological, military and security challenge from an increasingly assertive China. For the moment, voices that argued that “integrating China into the international mainstream” will lead to political and economic reforms have been weakened by actual developments.
The move to extend Xi Jinping’s presidential tenure is heightening concerns about the future challenge that the Chinese political system will pose to Western norms, exemplified by recent revelations of Chinese influence operations in Australia, and more than 100 Confucius institutes in the US. Western companies find themselves under pressure to part with technology for limited market access, restrictions on investments, even as Chinese companies do not face reciprocal constraints. There is a move both in Europe and the US to tighten norms and screening for Chinese investments and high technology acquisitions. There is a lack of consensus, however, on trade measures. These are seen as disruptive to existing trade, production and jobs.
The US action against Chinese imports is leading to a common Canada-Europe-China opposition. US, UK, France and Germany, among others, have been in competition for Chinese trade, investment and finance. Europe is also reticent so far on the Indo-Pacific strategies, even though France has a physical presence through its territory of Reunion Islands in the Indian Ocean, and New Caledonia and Tahiti in the Pacific, and facilities in Djibouti and the UAE.
The upcoming visit follows the Indian PM’s in June 2017, soon after Macron’s election, and that of his predecessor Francois Hollande as Chief Guest on our Republic Day in 2016.
The fact that the Modi government chose France as its second invitee, after US President Obama in 2015, reveals its assessment of the significance of the bilateral strategic partnership. In critical areas, such as defence, space, and civil nuclear energy, France is our strongest partner in western Europe, even though it is outranked by Germany and UK in trade and economic linkages. Even then, trade of $10.95 billion, cumulative French investments of $6 billion and Indian investments of $1.2 billion, the presence of 1,000 French companies in India and 120 Indian companies in France are significant.
Many of our heavier satellite launches are conducted at the Ariane facility at Kourou in French Guiana in South America. The nearly one lakh strong India diaspora incorporates historical linkages from French enclaves in India, and indentured laborers in places such as French Guadeloupe in the Caribbean, where the descendants now constitute around 30 per cent of the population.
Even though France is a member of the Western alliance system, it has also sought to maintain independent positions and autonomy in its decisions. This creates useful space for India.
France had not followed the US and UK’s lead in criticising or seeking to sanction India after our nuclear tests in 1998. It is a global power, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, where it has supported India’s aspirations, and has a physical presence in the Indo-Pacific region.
The Macron visit should enable us to take this a notch further.
Arun Singh is former Indian ambassador to the US.
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