India-France: Deepening strategic ties

By ZRG | Updated: Feb 21, 2013, 13:30 PM IST

Ajay Vaishnav / Zee Research Group

That Francois Hollande chose India to be his first Asian destination for a bilateral trip after assuming the French Presidency May last year highlights New Delhi’s salience in Paris’ diplomatic and strategic designs. The gesture hasn’t been missed in India with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh personally highlighting Paris’ special status at the joint press conference held after the bilateral talks in New Delhi last week.

Hollande was on a two-day visit to India mid February. The high-profile visit yielded a deal on a Short Range Surface-to-Air Missile deal worth nearly USD 6 billion.

While Russia remains India’s top most ally and an all-weather friend, Indo-French ties in the last two decades have flourished remarkably well albeit in an understated way. The last two French presidents Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy had taken personal interest in pushing ties with New Delhi. Paris had no problems with India conducting nuclear tests in 1998 and didn’t back the US-led anti-India sanctions in the aftermath period.

Even though India’s nuclear pariah status got revoked only after New Delhi improved its ties with the US, it doesn’t diminish the importance of sustained French advocacy for full integration of India into the new global order including its security architecture, i.e. permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council. In fact, India as an independent power centre in the present global order is congruous with France’s idea of a multi-polar view of the world.

Yet, the two nations’ interactions haven’t transformed qualitatively. The two countries need to chart a course where bilateral ties move uniquely beyond sharing a world view and military hardware buyer-seller role and harness true potential.

The starting point should obviously be defence and civil nuclear cooperation. A new chapter in the bilateral ties began with the Indian government last year selecting French Dassault Aviation’s Rafale fighter jets over Eurofighter Typhoon to provide 126 jets in what will be the world’s biggest purchase of warplanes in 15 years. A year has passed but there is no sign of the USD 11 billion deal even as the two sides maintain the negotiations on the sale of fighter jets are “progressing well”.

Likewise, there is no breakthrough in negotiations over liability clauses in the USD 9.4 billion deal to supply six nuclear reactors in Jaitapur, Maharashtra. A memorandum of understanding to cooperate on the construction of the Jaitapur plant, including lifetime fuel supply for the units, was signed by Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL) and Areva in February 2009. Post-Fukushima, the two nations are holding extensive deliberations over risk factors and civil nuclear liability.

However, the immediate respite for the two nations is the conclusion of the long-drawn negotiations for surface-to-air missile Maitri – a joint development project worth USD 6 billion during Hollande-Singh talks.

From an Indian perspective, further progress in defence cooperation will be measured on the basis of transparency, cost-effectiveness, time-bound delivery and quality of equipments (especially after Gorshkov aircraft carrier experience vis-a-vis Russia) and technology transfer. On civil nuclear cooperation, France must adhere to former president Sarkozy’s “full” civil nuclear cooperation, including the transfer of uranium enrichment technology. France and India can benefit together with the latter’s emergence as a supplier of a full range of nuclear services at home and in the region.

An area of concern for both countries, especially France (with shrinking economy amid Euro zone debt crisis), is trade. Bloomberg has reported that from 13th in 2006, France has ebbed to 26th in 2012 in India’s list of largest trading partners. Commerce between the two nations amounted to USD 9 billion in 2012, well below a target set in 2008 during a visit by the then French president Nicolas Sarkozy of USD 16 billion. France’s imports and exports represented about 1.1 percent of India’s total trade, according to government data. It is needless to stress who stands to benefit from an enhanced trade engagement.

Yet another catchment area for both nations is extending cooperation against terrorism. India has joined the international effort led by France to stabilise Mali which is reeling under al Qaeda attacks. India has committed to giving USD 1 million for the upgrade of the Malian Army with a pledge to ramp up contribution for reconstruction to USD 100 million after the situation stabilizes. It’s the first time India will be involving itself in the political process as well as reconstruction of a country so far from its immediate sphere of influence. The move displays a growing confidence within the Indian foreign policy system.

An emerging area of cooperation between India and France is maritime security in the Indian Ocean, as suggested by security expert C Raja Mohan. There has been a lack of appreciation and ignorance in the Indian academia and security think-tanks vis-a-vis French presence (both military and possession of overseas territories) in the Indian Ocean. Enhanced maritime cooperation with the French Navy will boost Indian capabilities to secure its trade supply lines and vigilance.