France, Egypt, and India Can Help to Spread Security from Mediterranean to the Indo-Pacific
In March 2021, the container ship Ever Given got stuck in the Suez Canal for six days, triggering a worldwide supply-chain crisis with extensive economic consequences. This incident was a powerful reminder of how intertwined the Mediterranean Sea and the Indo-Pacific are. Yet, these two maritime areas are often seen as separate regions despite a growing list of shared challenges from climate to trade and security. Russia’s war in Ukraine has only added to this connectivity by destabilizing the energy market and provoking a food crisis.
Addressing these challenges requires overcoming the limits of existing institutions and multilateral formats, which are often restricted in their geographical scope, or paralyzed by internal divisions. In this context, innovative coalitions are emerging to tackle transnational issues, as recently illustrated with the Quad and the Israel-India-United Arab Emirates-United States “I2U2” grouping. Cooperation between France, Egypt, and India could add an important new element to this web of overlapping coalitions.
Trilateral engagement between Paris, Cairo, and New Delhi would serve as a geostrategic corridor that connects the Mediterranean to the Indo-Pacific and allows the three countries to work together when interests align without being bound in a formal structure. To succeed, the three countries should refrain from pursuing far-fetched objectives, and instead focus on tangible issues such as maritime security, undersea cables, and food resilience.
Converging Geostrategic Interests
The potential for trilateral cooperation between France, Egypt, and India stems from their converging geostrategic interests. All three countries are maritime nations that are committed to preserving the stability of the transoceanic space stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indo-Pacific. They share the same concern: that growing geopolitical tensions could jeopardize such stability, as recently witnessed in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Strait of Hormuz. The three countries are also aware of the destabilizing impact of climate change on the oceans, as illustrated by mounting illegal fishing activities and natural disasters.
Paris, Cairo, and New Delhi are also collectively facing the aftershocks of Russia’s war against Ukraine, specifically in the form of energy and food insecurity. Although the three countries are not perfectly aligned in their approach to this conflict, they have nonetheless displayed a common desire to address these challenges. On the energy front, France, like the rest of Europe, must find alternative gas and oil suppliers as the continent begins an energy divorce with Russia. Here, Cairo has positioned itself as a geostrategic partner to Europe, leveraging its status as the architect of gas production in the eastern Mediterranean. Egypt, in turn, as the world’s largest importer of wheat, has been hit particularly hard by the war. Cairo has been forced to diversify its wheat suppliers and look towards India and France as more reliable sources.
Strong Bilateral Partnerships
France, Egypt, and India have already built strong bilateral partnerships over the past few years. Since the 1990s, Paris and New Delhi have managed to develop a deep strategic partnership in key security areas — such as maritime, space, and cyber — as well as defense procurement. Since the 2010s, France and Egypt have progressively strengthened their defense cooperation, as demonstrated by Cairo’s acquisition of French Rafale jets and two Mistral helicopter carriers, along with joint maritime exercises in the Red Sea.
There is a historical affinity between Cairo and New Delhi because of their self-proclaimed status as “civilization-states,” demographic hegemony within their respective regions, geographic centrality, and well-earned geopolitical aspirations. From their shared struggle for independence against the British Empire to founding and leading the Non-Aligned Movement at the height of the Cold War, Egypt and India have long maintained close ties. Following Egypt’s transition from the Soviet to the American bloc after the 1978 Camp David Accords, bilateral relations cooled off and did not live up to their potential. Policymakers in Cairo and New Delhi —bilaterally or within a Indo-Abrahamic framework — now aim to revive them. President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have met in person several times, maintain a friendly and cooperative relationship, and have shown a clear appetite for closer ties. Both countries have recently increased their cooperation on various issues, including health (with Egypt supporting India during the pandemic), food security (with India supplying wheat to Egypt), and security (with joint air force exercises).
Embracing a Transoceanic Approach
Building on these shared interests, a trilateral partnership between France, Egypt, and India would ensure a much-needed transoceanic approach that would cover the Mediterranean Sea and the Indo-Pacific. In the 19th century, Britain’s vast imperial endeavor established a transcontinental geostrategic system that spanned from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean via Egypt’s Suez Canal. Yet this transoceanic construct, which existed centuries ago before being appropriated by the British Empire, gradually collapsed following World Wars I and II. The Cold War divided the littoral states of these two maritime regions into warring camps with different sets of interests and objectives. Today, this region is often divided into separate bureaucratic sub-regions. In the U.S. system, for example, parts of it fall under the authority of four different combatant commands: Europe, Central, Africa, and Indo-Pacific.
Yet this transoceanic region remains as important as ever. Suez is a major strategic chokepoint for Europe-Asia trade flows, with 12 percent of global trade and 30 percent of global container traffic crossing the canal. Often overlooked compared to East Asia and the Pacific, the Indian Ocean is also of central importance, with strategic routes for energy shipping and international trade that are increasingly a theater of geopolitical competition.
Given its geopolitical centrality, Egypt would be an anchor point for trilateral cooperation. Egypt’s civilization and geographic position — between Africa, Europe, and Asia — places Cairo as a bridge between multiple sub-regions. Over the past few years, Cairo has displayed renewed regional ambitions aimed at making Egypt an integral member state of any strategy that focuses on economic vitality and security among the littoral states of the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. These ambitions are reinforced by Egypt’s concerns about the growing competition in its near environment. Specifically, Cairo is seeking to diversify its partnerships in a context of strategic convergence between Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan across multiple theaters from the eastern Mediterranean Sea to Central Asia.
With a southern maritime coastline in the Mediterranean Sea and overseas territories (and military bases) both in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific, France is also in a unique position to tie together this region. In its 2018 Indo-Pacific strategy, Paris has already started to create bridges between Europe, the Indian Ocean, and the Pacific, with an extensive geographical definition of the Indo-Pacific stretching “from Djibouti to Polynesia.”
Coalition of Middle Powers
A trilateral arrangement between France, Egypt, and India would be part of a larger network of middle-power coalitions across the Indo-Pacific. As witnessed with the Quad or, more recently, with the Israel-India-United Arab Emirates-United States group (which may eventually extent to include Egypt), these minilateral formats have proliferated in recent years to overcome the limitations of traditional multilateralism. Compared to large organizations that are often paralyzed by consensus rule and internal divisions, these groupings are flexible and pragmatic enough to ensure quick, tangible results. Far from fragmenting international cooperation, these coalitions are actually strengthening multilateralism through their solution-oriented approach.
While traditional multilateral organizations are often built around existing geographical formats, smaller coalitions have helped to enable transregional cooperation. This was the rationale behind the French-Indian-Australian axis that has been promoted by Paris, New Delhi, and Canberra since 2018 in order to address shared challenges in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific. This specific format stalled after AUKUS, but there is now a potential for reviving it following the recent French-Australian rapprochement. More recently, India, France, and the United Arab Emirates have launched a new trilateral dialogue, at the technical level, to explore potential cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region.
The China Question
One potential challenge to trilateral cooperation between France, Egypt, and India could be China’s reaction, particularly as the three countries have different approaches vis-à-vis Beijing. France has recently hardened its stance in response to China’s assertive diplomatic and military posture. India has long pursued a more ambiguous approach, but has recently strengthened its ties with Washington, notably through the Quad, in light of mounting tensions with Beijing. On the other hand, Egypt does not want to choose the United States over China or vice versa. Cairo is a non-NATO ally for Washington but also emerging as a strategic partner for Beijing in Africa and the greater Middle East region. Egypt might be reluctant to engage in a trilateral framework that could be perceived by China as a coalition challenging its interests.
Against this backdrop, France, Egypt, and India should be careful how they frame their cooperation. From the start, they should be clear that such an arrangement would not alter their respective relationships with China, nor force them to choose between rival camps. Far from being a broader strategic alignment between the three countries, this trilateral arrangement would simply seek pragmatic cooperation on issues of shared interest. As outlined by the French defense minister at the Shangri-La Dialogue last June, France’s goal in the region is not to force its partners to “join one side or the other,” but to pursue a “multilateral approach respecting the sovereignty of all.” Trilateral cooperation between Paris, Cairo, and New Delhi would therefore counterbalance the conventional description of the Indo-Pacific as a new “Cold War” theater between the United States and China. Instead of fueling a bipolar competition, a France-Egypt-India framework would offer an alternative approach in which members could strengthen their own autonomy and sovereignty.
Building a Common Agenda
The starting point for a new France-Egypt-India relationship could be a trilateral foreign minister-level meeting, where the three nations agree on common objectives and priorities. Instead of pursuing grand and far-fetched goals, the trilateral format should focus on critical areas such as intelligence sharing, maritime security, cyber security, energy, food security and critical infrastructure such as 5G and undersea cables. Among those areas, three are particularly promising: maritime security, undersea cables, and food resilience.
First, greater cooperation between the French, Egyptian, and Indian navies would contribute to maritime security in the Indian Ocean, the Gulf, and the Mediterranean Sea. To start with, they could share data, including satellite imagery, to build a common operating picture. This would allow them to monitor illegal activities, from unlicensed fishing to piracy. The three navies should also organize joint exercises to build their interoperability and train for different scenarios, from humanitarian assistance to combat missions. This naval cooperation could contribute to ongoing efforts led by organizations such as the Indian Ocean Rim Association, of which France and India are members, and Egypt is a dialogue partner.
Second, Paris, Cairo, and New Delhi should cooperate on securing and even building undersea cables. These critical infrastructure elements carry over 95 percent of international data. Multiple undersea cables pass through the Suez Canal, linking Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Up to 30 percent of global internet traffic is believed to flow through the canal. Given the mounting importance of this infrastructure, France, Cairo, and New Delhi should aim to better protect existing cables and also explore potential new cables to meet the growing bandwidth demand.
Third, the three countries should accelerate their collective effort to address the growing food insecurity that has resulted from the war in Ukraine. Paris and New Delhi have already taken encouraging steps. France will increase its wheat export to Egypt. New Delhi has also exempted Cairo from a recent wheat export ban imposed in response to its own limited supplies. Beyond this immediate assistance, the three countries should work on long-term solutions to develop and adapt their food production, notably by supporting the French-led Food and Agriculture Resilience Mission. Launched in response to the war in Ukraine, and supported by the World Food Program, the initiative aims to reduce tensions in agricultural markets and increase agricultural capabilities worldwide. France’s initiative is not the only framework. As part of the Israel-India-United Arab Emirates-United States group, India is committed to providing the needed agricultural land for integrated food parks. New Delhi could provide the same perk to the France-Egypt-India format.
With global disorder intensifying, new formats are needed to overcome the limitations of traditional multilateral institutions. An innovative coalition bringing together France, Egypt, and India would be an imaginative way of addressing transnational challenges affecting the transoceanic space from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indo-Pacific. In the short term, the three countries should be pragmatic and start with concrete cooperation on immediate challenges, such as maritime security, undersea cables, and food resilience. This can then grow into a format capable of engaging on a more global level by coordinating with other issue-based transregional groups, such as Israel-India-United Arab Emirates-United States and the Quad. By doing so, France, Egypt, and India would contribute to an emerging and promising trend of greater integration among the littoral states of Eurasia.
Mohammed Soliman is a manager at McLarty Associates and a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute. You can find him on Twitter at @Thisissoliman
Pierre Morcos is a French diplomat in residence and visiting fellow in the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. You can find him on Twitter at @morcos_pierre.
Raja Mohan is a Senior Fellow at Asia Society Policy Institute, New Delhi. You can find him on Twitter at @MohanCRaja.
The views expressed in this article are strictly personal.
Photo by MEAphotogallery