Drafting a robust security strategy for Indo-Pacific
A new trilateral format between France, India and the United Arab Emirates aims to deal with the global disorder by bolstering collective security in the Indo-Pacific region. The grouping must establish an ambitious agenda and complement other frameworks such as I2U2
On the sidelines of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly last month, the foreign ministers of France, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and India met for their first trilateral meeting and announced the launch of the France-UAE-India trilateral format in the Indo-Pacific. The new framework reflects the rise of overlapping trilateral and quadrilateral formats emerging between the littoral states of Eurasia. They aim to deal with the global disorder and the return of great power competition through the bolstering of collective security in the Indo-Pacific.
Last July, senior officials from the ministries of foreign affairs of the three countries met to exchange “perspectives on the Indo-Pacific region and explored the potential areas of trilateral cooperation, including maritime security, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR), blue economy, regional connectivity, energy and food security and people-to-people cooperation.” As three maritime nations, France, the UAE and India have a more expansive definition of the Indo-Pacific as a strategic theatre that stretches from the western coast of Australia in the east to the Mozambique Channel in the West and also encompasses the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Sea, the Red Sea, and the Suez Canal.
France is a resident Indian Ocean State with its hold over the strategic the Reunion and Mayotte islands and Iles Eparses; the UAE has emerged recently as a commercial and strategic naval power with a large footprint in the Arabian Sea, the Red Sea, and the Horn of Africa; and India has been increasingly seen as a gatekeeper of the Indian Ocean with its ability to “shape a favourable balance of power” in the Indo-Pacific because of its geostrategic, military, and economic weight.
The 28 littoral States of the Indian Ocean are home to 2.7 billion people and are expected to constitute a fifth of the global Gross Domestic Product by 2025. France, the UAE, and India recognise the economic and connectivity centrality of the Indian Ocean and being at the front and centre in the balance of power in Asia as a gateway to the Indo-Pacific in terms of energy and trade ties. Moreover, by looking to the Indian Ocean as a gateway to the Indo-Pacific, Paris, Abu Dhabi, and Delhi are linking West Asia with the Indo-Pacific, which builds an overarching Asian geopolitical order in the long-term.
The three nations developed strong bilateral relations in the 2010s and 2022s. In the military domain, Paris has proved to be a reliable strategic partner to Delhi with the sales of advanced nuclear-capable Rafale fighters and conventional attack submarines, and the transfer of French military technology to India — strategic assets and value that increased India’s power projection in the Indo-Pacific. Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the poor performance of Russian equipment on the battlefield, India is slowly drifting away from Russia, and Paris is likely to play a major role in this new Indian effort.
Similarly, the UAE and France stepped up their defence cooperation, with Abu Dhabi in 2021 awarding France its largest-ever export weapons contract that includes 80 upgraded Rafale fighters and Airbus-built helicopters. The UAE chose French military equipment as an alternative to the United States (US)-made F35, which came to a stalemate after the inauguration of President Joe Biden. Following the Abraham Accords, the UAE-India bilateral relations transformed into a strategic partnership, with Abu Dhabi and Delhi founding the I2U2 group alongside the US and Israel to configure the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East by redefining the region as “West Asia,” which encompasses the Middle East and South Asia by including India. In addition, the UAE and India have elevated their cooperation in defence, space, tech, energy, food security, and maritime security.
The UAE’s participation in this new trilateral with France and India reflects Abu Dhabi’s new strategic discourse to project its power beyond its traditional domain in West Asia into the Indo-Pacific. The France-UAE-India trilateral will join an extensive network of middle-power coalitions across the Indo-Pacific, such as Quad, AUKUS, the France-India-Australia trilateral format, and the Australia-India-Indonesia trilateral. These minilateral formats have proliferated in recent years to strengthen regional resiliency in an era of great power competition and manage the current global disorder and the gradual transition from Pax Americana to a multipolar world order.
For the France-UAE-India trilateral to become a major mechanism in the Indo-Pacific, it needs to establish an ambitious agenda that does not alienate other regional and global powers, especially in the initial phase of cultivating the trilateral format — and must complement other existing formats, namely the I2U2 and the France-India-Australia dialogue. The France-UAE-India trilateral should adopt a maritime security and connectivity agenda informed by the recognition of the centrality of the Indian Ocean as a sequential element of the Indo-Pacific and its hold over maritime connectivity, energy, and trade flows around the Eurasian rimland. At the same time, a robust Indian Ocean-focused maritime security and connectivity agenda could offer another strategic incentive for other countries, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Oman, to join the format in the coming years.
Mohammed Soliman is a global strategy adviser and a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute The views expressed are personal
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- Htls 2022