India-France relations now rests on the two solid pillars of defence and nuclear cooperation and provides a sound basis on which both can promote the future strategy of coordinated engagement with the rest of the world. These two pillars have helped India-France ties to flourish in other strategic issues and offers new possibilities for the two countries to strengthen their strategic partnerships.
The French being an Indian Ocean power by virtue of having two groups of islands, the Reunion and the Mayotte islands, in the maritime area, both the nations have a common interest in working together for safeguarding each others interests and promoting peace and stability in the area.
Hence the President of France did not hesitate to ignore the protocol of waiting for the return visit of Indian Prime Minister. It was both in the French and Indian strategic interests to exchange notes on various security issues bothering the two nations and also the International community.
The visit of President Francois Hollande to India on 14th February thus provided an opportunity for both the nations to work on the prospects of deepening strategic partnership as a shared objective, for which the two nations are holding regular foreign office consultations and strategic dialogue besides indulging in joint naval exercises since last decade.
The delay in concluding the Rafale fighter deal probably prompted the French President Francois Hollande to pay a repeat visit to India, last being in July 2010 by the then President Sarkozy. The French were very excited when India very unexpectedly announced last year in January, the French Dassault as the winner in the US$ 18 billion deal for the Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft.
The French have been India’s old and trusted defence supplier and has stood with India in times of its international isolation in the wake of the nuclear tests in 1998 and was the first to give moral support to India by concluding a strategic partnership agreement that year.
The French supplied India the most modern Mirage-2000 multirole fighter aircraft in early eighties when the cold war was at its peak and the Americans were arming the Pakistani Air Force with the latest in its armory the F-16 fighters. Though the French continued to engage with India in defence sector, its decision to supply Augusta submarines to Pakistan in the nineties irked India, but the French later realized that they cannot lose a bigger defence market for a much lesser sized defence deal with Pakistan.
India rewarded the French seven years ago with another big ticket deal, the US$ 4.5 billion Scorpene submarine contract and is now eager to bag the deal for another six submarines for which RFI has been issued very recently. The India-France political and diplomatic relations thus is gradually maturing on the strength of huge defence deals and the latest ongoing negotiations for the 126 Rafale fighters, if concluded, will be another feather in the strategic partnership between the two countries which will further bind the two nations for the decades to come.
However, in times of deep recession in Europe, the delay in concluding the Rafale deal has aroused suspicions and nervousness in the French leadership. So by stressing upon the importance of the strategic partnership the French President managed to extract a promise from the Indian Prime Minister that the Rafale negotiation is on track and was even mentioned in the joint statement issued after the conclusion of the visit on 14th and 15th February.
The French President did not return Paris empty handed. He bagged the US$ 6 billion Short Range Surface to Air Missile deal, which Indian Defence ministry was negotiating with other international partners.
The SRSAM missile is in fact an improvised Trishul short range missile which was almost abandoned after the Indian DRDO failed to certify its utility. The Indian Army and Air Force is eager to replace its Soviet origin Pechora missiles and the Indo-French missile deal named as MAITRI (friendship) have been jointly developed and will be co produced in India. The Indian Army wants to equip ten of its regiments with almost 1000 missiles for anti missile and anti aircraft roles.
The French are already implementing the Mirage-2000 upgradation deal worth US$ 2.2 billion and they hope to bag many other radar and communication equipment deals for Thales, which is a leading company in this field.
Undoubtedly the French have bagged the mother of all defence deals and is considered very significant in the current geo political environment. They have been adequately rewarded by India for supporting India in all the international forums like the support for Indian candidature for the permanent membership of UNSC and also on the issue of civil nuclear cooperation.
They have moved ahead on the plan to set up six nuclear reactors in Jaitapur, in spite of the Indian Nuclear Liability Law, which has been rejected by the American companies. India has opted for six European Pressurized Reactors, on which concerns of high cost and safety have been expressed not only domestically but by the international experts also. However India has expressed confidence on the French technology and will provide them market for nuclear equipments worth more than US$ 30 billion in the coming decades.
The strategic partnership with India thus has helped both the countries. The French will get nuclear business worth tens of billions of Euros from India and the deal will prompt other nuclear powers to come to terms with Indian nuclear liability law.
After the Hollande-Manmohan talks the Prime Minister said, “We expressed satisfaction with the progress in our defence cooperation, which is poised to reach a qualitatively new level. Discussions on the MMRCA contract are progressing well. We have also concluded negotiations on the Short Range Surface to Air Missile, which, once approved by the Government, will be co-developed and co-produced in India. There is a welcome shift from defence trade to co-development and co-production of advanced defence items in India, which will help expand our domestic production base and strengthen the India-France strategic partnership.”
In accordance with the spirit of strategic partnership India and France have been sending their military men to each others soil and maritime area and thus demonstrating to the international community their resolve to jointly safeguard each others strategic interests.
The French have two islands in Indian Ocean and they have a common agenda to protect and promote stability in the maritime area. Since, the Indian Ocean is once again emerging as the Ocean of rivalry; India needs a partner in its maritime domain to protect its maritime interests and a nation which can openly come in its support. Both the countries have been conducting the joint army exercise Shakti, the joint naval exercise Varuna and the joint air exercise Garuda.
Both the countries in the joint statement expressed the determination to enhance bilateral cooperation in the field of defence, which has been described as an important pillar of strategic partnership and reflects their common determination to work for global peace and security. The French have gone out of way to support India’s entry to the four export control regimes like the MTCR, NSG, Wassenaar Arrangements and the Australia Group.
The inclusion of India in these regimes will truly extricate India from International isolation and put India in the same league as other G-20 members.
India needs a western strategic partner in an era when some countries are making intense efforts to prevent the emergence of India in some of the prominent global bodies, in which India can play a very stabilizing role. France being a leading European power and has the guts to speak independently of US dictates in international affairs has promoted India’s cause in the United Nations and forums like the G-20.