The article highlights the significance of the Trilateral Initiative between the UAE, France and India, especially amid the developing dynamics in the Indian Ocean. The piece further explores the significance of the UAE and France for India and her interests, as well as what trilateral cooperation would bring to the table for each of the three states.
Picture by Lara Jameson on Pexels
Despite the differences, they agreed to focus on the commonalities and recognised each other as strategic partners. The trilateral cooperation initiative aims to strengthen and build upon the constructive and collaborative ties between the three countries and expand cooperation in various fields. In February 2023, the three External Affairs Ministers engaged in a telephone conversation that concluded with a framework for cooperation. Traditionally, these three countries have not engaged in trilateral collaboration. The changing geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific incentivizes them to build relations. The article analyses these changes while discussing the details of the trilateral framework. It also builds a pedestal for analysis through India’s eyes, as India has historic bilateral relations with both the UAE and France. While traditionally, the UAE is seen as a partner with shared cultural values and France as a defence and trade partner, bilateral cooperation has been expanded to include more fields such as education, energy, investment etc. A trilateral framework promises holistic development for all three members while bolstering their influence in Indo-Pacific, especially the Western Indian Ocean (WIO) region.
Salient Features of the Trilateral Cooperation Framework
The announcement that came after the call between the three ministers establishes the trilateral framework as a forum to promote cooperation in the fields of energy, especially solar and nuclear energy, climate action, and biodiversity conservation, particularly in the Indian Ocean region. The possibility of extended cooperation through the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) will be tested to pursue actionable clean energy and conservation projects (Government of France, 2023). On the same note, the trilateral initiative also promises increased cooperation for sustainable projects and aims to align the three countries’ economic, technological, and social policies with the Paris Agreement. The three countries clearly emphasized climate action and biodiversity conservation in this initiative. Cooperation through initiatives such as the Mangrove Alliance for Climate led by the UAE and the Indo-Pacific Parks Partnership led by India and France has also been agreed upon. Aligning with the UAE’s hosting of COP 28 in 2023, the initiative focuses on key environmental issues such as single-use plastic pollution, desertification, and food security. India’s Lifestyle for Environment (LiFE) Mission, which promotes individual behavioural change to shift from a ‘use and dispose of’ consumption pattern, serves as the basis for cooperation in the field of the circular economy.
The defence has also been identified as another area of close cooperation between the three countries. The statement released after the phone call promotes compatibility, joint development, and co-production and aims to increase collaboration and training between the three countries’ defence forces. Following the COVID-19 threat, the three countries also aim to exchange views on infectious diseases and the prevention of further pandemics. One very important area of cooperation mentioned in the statement is technological exchange this would be achieved by connecting academic and research institutions to promote technological innovation and entrepreneurship. The initiative promises trilateral conferences, meetings, and high-level technology events to achieve these areas of growth.
Significance of UAE and France for India
India enjoys a strong bond of friendship with the UAE based on cultural, religious, and economic ties. UAE is integral to India’s Gulf policy, subsumed under the ‘Extended Neighbourhood Policy’ (Khushnam, 2021). Bilateral cooperation covers economics, defence, security, culture, and law enforcement. India was the UAE’s largest trading partner; the UAE was India’s fifth largest import source of crude oil in 2011-12 (Government of India, 2012). Both countries have also established strong cooperation in the defence sector, ranging from the production and development of defence equipment, joint exercises of the forces, information sharing on strategy, and technical cooperation. The UAE is also home to a large Indian expatriate community, which plays a significant role in the economic development of the UAE. Staying true to the UAE’s ‘Economic Vision 2030’, India can benefit from the long-term economic diversification strategy focused on a skilled workforce and infrastructure. Recent progress in the development of relations between both countries, however, has found its basis in broadly mutual geopolitical views and shared security concerns (Khushnam, 2021). Counterterrorism and maritime security have been important elements of the India-UAE dialogue, stemming dialogues and concrete cooperation. The Abraham Accords have created an opportunity for greater India-UAE cooperation.
India and France traditionally have close and friendly relations. A strategic partnership between both countries was established in 1998. As a European country, France has been supporting India’s aspirations for modern defence technology and equipment, especially considering the complex security issues arising from the China-Pakistan nexus (Bharti et al., 2022). Even though Russia meets 70 per cent of India’s defence needs (Racine, 2002), India enjoys strong defence cooperation with France, which has been gaining traction over the last decade (Karambelkar, 2021). Both countries are maritime nations with economic sectors such as marine research technology, fisheries, port, and shipping. Closely linked to the ocean, both countries aim to make the blue economy a driver of progress. France has acknowledged the growing importance of the Indo-Pacific as a strategic point of view for French policy and became the first European Union (EU) country to promptly adopt the narrative (Morcos, 2021). The country has established collaborations with multiple partners in the region to counter Chinese strategies. The maritime partnership with India is becoming a central point of Indo-French cooperation as both countries seek to expand trade (Grare, 2020). Both countries have also engaged in dialogues concerning terrorism and common security threats, similar to India-UAE cooperation on the matter.
Significance of Trilateral Cooperation
France has a significant presence in the Indian Ocean with its overseas territories of La Reunion and Mayotte and the four military bases in the UAE, the two islands, and Djibouti. The region is also key for India from an economic and trade perspective. The Indian Ocean and Indo-Pacific have become an anchor to bring both countries together for cooperation in several fields (Lawale and Ahmad, 2021). The UAE can play a vital role in this trilateral. Apart from hosting the French military base, the UAE has significant influence in crucial areas of commercial and strategic importance in the Indian Ocean. Apart from controlling the shipping ports in the region, the UAE influences the major shipping routes in the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and East Africa, making it an important ally in the region for both India and France. Both countries have close and historic ties with the UAE, making it easier to build a fruitful relationship.
From the lens of realism, the push factor for a state to cooperate is if the gains of cooperation are so important that they overcome the relative gains problem, especially when there is a perceived external security threat (Lawale and Ahmad, 2021). The India-UAE-France trilateral holds the potential to influence outcomes in the Indian Ocean region. The framework already creates the possibility of collaboration with organizations like the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). All three countries have ties with the International Maritime Organisation through the Djibouti Code of Conduct of 2009, where India holds observer status, the UAE is a member, and France is a donor. The three countries are also involved in the International Solar Alliance (ISA), which includes several African countries. A trilateral initiative can significantly improve the influence of the three countries in these organizations and the Indian Ocean region. Establishing a strong presence in the busy trade region can help counter China’s growing influence and heavy investments. This trilateral is also important, particularly when Australia-UK-US have formed a security partnership (AUKUS) in the Indo-Pacific excluding France. Lastly, this trilateral will boost, and revive India’s strategic influence in the Indo-Pacific and the Western Indian Ocean (WIO) region. As a growing economy, bolstering economic and trade relations with the UAE promises growth for its large diaspora in the UAE. A trilateral framework with the UAE and France will allow India to strengthen its foothold in the increasingly important region and protect its interests.
Although seemingly like an unlikely group, the trilateral initiative of India, the UAE, and France would be very significant in the WIO region. The increased combined power can help tackle China’s growing influence. India would regain control over the busiest trade routes through the UAE. Improved cooperation with France in defence reduces India’s reliance on Russia for equipment and technology. Strengthening its position in various organizations along with the UAE and France, India will benefit from establishing new ties and increasing trade. Cooperation through the ISA also enables access to the triad on the African continent, where China poses a threat. The trilateral, if leveraged properly, will benefit the three countries, strategically and economically.
This article represents the views of contributors to STEAR's online digital publication, and not those of STEAR, which takes no institutional positions.
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