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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 33, August 9, 2014

India-France Cooperation: Towards Enhanced Bilateral Partnership

Friday 8 August 2014, by Bharti Chhibber

The recent visit of French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius to India may not have resulted in clinching of the Rafale jet deal which is being negotiated since January 2012 but it surely is an important step in enhanced bilateral partnership between the two countries. If the agreement materialises in the future the induction of Rafale fighter jets is expected to bolster the ‘air dominance’ doctrine of the Indian Air Force. The deal involves technology-sharing and the production of most of the planes in India. The agreement will further help cash-strapped France which is suffering owing to diminution of the defence budget in Europe.

Laurent Fabius appreciated and offered cooperation to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ambitious plan to make India a solar energy hub. France has also proposed to give India a 1 billion euro credit line available over three years to fund sustainable infrastructure and urban development projects. India definitely needs investment for infrastructure develop-ment as Prime Minister Narendra Modi has stressed on upgrading infrastructural facilities.

Historical Overview of Relations

Though India-France relations have a long history, it was only in 1998 that the relationship caught the imagination of leaders in both the countries with the then French President, Jacques Chirac, in his historical speech at Vigyan Bhavan, New Delhi, expressing the idea of “a partnership for the 21st century”. This was the culmination of India’s economic growth and the French desire to work for a multipolar world. Since then there has been regular head of state or government-level summits and cooperation in defence, nuclear energy and space fields. Both the countries also emphasise on the values of sovereignty and pluralism. French officials in diplomatic visits have repeatedly recognised India as the “biggest democracy of the world”. Prime Minister Vajpayee’s visit to France later during 1998 cemented a new strategic partnership. There are a network of institutionalised cooperation between the two countries including a Strategic Dialogue at the level of National Security Advisors, a High-Level Committee for Defence at the level of Defence Secretaries, a Joint Working Group on Terrorism, annual consul-tations between the two Foreign Ministries at the level of Foreign Secretaries and a Joint Committee for Economic and Technical Coope-ration at the level of Ministers of Commerce.

In the following years, the French President stressed on the importance for Paris of civilian nuclear energy on the occasion of the then Indian Prime Minister’s visit to France on September 15, 2005. In 2008, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited France to sign the first civil nuclear deal after the waiver by the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group enabling India to resume full civil nuclear cooperation with the international community. An agreement was signed between Areva and the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) to build two Evolutionary Power Reactors of 1650 MW each for an estimated cost of about $ 9.5 billion at the Jaitapur site in Maharashtra during President Sarkozy’s India visit in December 2010.

Moreover, France has been supporting India for a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council and has also endorsed India‘s candidature for the four multilateral export controls regimes: the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the Missile Technology Control Regime, the Australia Group and the Wassenaar Arrange-ment.

President Hollande’s visit to India in 2013 further strengthened the bilateral cooperation. In July 2013 Defence Minister A.K. Antony and his French counterpart, Jean-Yves Le Drian, discussed Rs 30,000-crore project for co-developing the Maitri surface-to-air missile defence system. Bilateral camaraderie was also visible in a strong French presence at Defexpo India 2014. Joint military exercises between the two nations have also become a norm now. Bilateral exercise ‘Shakti’ between the two armies took place in September 2013 in France. Likewise, India-France Garuda-V air exercise was held recently at the Air Force station in Jodhpur in June 2014.

India and France are also collaborating in space research. The Indian Space Research Organi-sation (ISRO) and its French counterpart, Centre National de Etudes Spatiales (CNES), hold annual bilateral meetings. In 2013 India’s advanced weather satellite, INSAT-3D, and advanced communication satellite, GSAT-7, were launched on-board the Ariane from Kourou, French Guyana. On the same lines France and India are collaborating in the sphere of culture and education as well.

Major Irritants

In spite of friendly relations, there are some challenges to India-France relationship. Economic and trade relations between the two states are very low although there are Joint Working Groups on IT and Telecom, Roads, Environment, Urban Development and Urban Transportation, and Agriculture. Lack of proper infrastructure and ‘corruption’ in India and strong Chinese trade presence in France further slows down economic cooperation between India and France.

Another problematic issue is that of immigration and outsourcing of jobs. Due to the Eurozone crises French people are facing unemployment and poverty. Immigration from developing countries and outsourcing, especially in the manufacturing sectors are further blamed for this state, of affairs in France and India is considered as one of the states responsible for this employment drain. 

The Way Forward

India is not only a good defence market for France but is seen as a counterbalance to China in the present Asian geopolitical order. Moreover both India and France want to pursue an independent foreign policy in Asia without any pressure from external countries like the US. This is what French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian termed as ‘strategic autonomy’ during his July 2013 visit to India. ‘National sovereignty depends on the State’s autonomy of assessment, decision-making and action...We intend to remain in control of our decisions and our actions with regard to defence and security.’

Moreover, the Indian Ocean is another place where the interests of India and France converge. Security of sea routes are essential for the global economy. France and India should cooperate not only in joint anti-piracy operations but also to counterbalance China’s growing dominance in the area. According to the French ‘White Paper on Defence and National Security’ 2013, it is endowing itself with technical intelligence capabilities in the field of cyber-attacks to identify the source of the attacks, assess the offensive capacities of the potential adversaries, and be capable of countering them. At the same time, as France (albeit to a lesser extent) and India have both faced terrorist attacks, cooperation in this field is crucial for both. India can learn from France’s anti-terrorist and counter-cyber-attack services.

During his speech at the ASEAN headquarters in Jakarta on August 2, 2013 French Minister of Foreign Affairs Laurent Fabius said: ‘With India, the world’s largest democracy, our relationship is exceptional in the degree of confidence that underpins it and its level of ambition. Our two countries have established a very close strategic partnership in the fields of defence, counter-terrorism, civil nuclear energy and space.’ Enhanced defence collaborations between India and France should also contribute to greater economic cooperation. It is critical for deeper, stronger and comprehensive partnership between the two countries.

Dr Bharti Chhibber teaches political science in the University of Delhi. She can be contacted at email: bharti.chhibber@gmail.com