The India-France strategic partnership has been deepened by President François Hollande’s visit to India as chief guest at our Republic Day celebrations, the fifth time that a French leader has been so honoured. His visit has consolidated gains accomplished in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s April visit to France and, indeed, expanded them.
Our relations with the United States-led West have been historically marked by differences on crucial strategic issues, sanctions, technology denial and negative policies in our neighbourhood. France, although a member of the western alliance and the technology denial regimes, and careful about adherence to its ‘international’ commitments, has, nevertheless, always been supple in dealing with India as part of its independent foreign policy.
France has partnered us in defence, space and nuclear areas for decades. Unlike other European countries, France’s refusal to impose bilateral sanctions after our nuclear tests, its initiative to open a strategic dialogue with us as an alternative to a sanctions approach, its support for civilian nuclear cooperation and NSG exemption, its decision to end sale of advanced weaponry to Pakistan, explains why we attach importance to the relationship.
During Hollande’s visit, France reaffirmed its support for India’s UNSC permanent membership and earned our appreciation of the important role it played in moving the process to the stage of text-based negotiations. The joint determination expressed to achieve India’s NSG accession in 2016 is new and important.
Modi has said that he decided to invite Hollande as chief guest after the terrorist attacks in Paris last November. The robustly worded separate joint statement on counter terrorism that has been issued meets all our requirements. It recognises the need to urgently ‘disrupt terrorist networks and financing channels, eliminate terrorist safe havens, training infrastructure and cross-border movement of terrorists’, besides underlining ‘the need for all countries to effectively deal with terrorism emanating from their territory or territories under their control’. It seeks action ‘against all entities, including States, that sponsor, provide support, active or passive, to terrorist groups or harbour them’.
Significantly, Modi and Hollande have asked for ‘decisive actions’ against the Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad and Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, and, while condemning the terror attacks in Pathankot and Gurdaspur, have called on Pakistan to bring to justice their perpetrators as well as those of the 26/11 Mumbai attacks. Hollande has commended India’s stabilising role in South Asia, in particular in Afghanistan, where the two sides noted that terrorist activities and proxies supported from safe havens across Afghanistan’s borders posed a grave threat to its peace, security and stability. On Pakistan-linked terrorism and on Afghanistan, India and France have found common language. Given that France will raise the terrorism issue in European instances and in the UN with much greater force than before, this should assist us in dealing with our Pakistan problem.
In the area of defence, unsurprisingly, media attention was riveted on whether the big-ticket Rafale contract would be finalised during the visit. In the event, an MoU on the purchase of 36 Rafales was concluded and clarification given that all aspects of the inter-governmental agreement on their acquisition had been concluded, barring the resolution of some financial issues presumably in the next four weeks. The 2006 Agreement on Defence Cooperation will be extended for another 10 years.
Our desire to forge closer strategic ties with France has, however, not got translated into increased defence procurement from France. The space for it has actually shrunk with the US and Israel emerging as significant defence partners and the continuation of our privileged ties with Russia. The 126 Rafale aircraft contract has got reduced to 36. The French lost the contract of light utility helicopters twice despite decades of reliable service that French-origin helicopters like Cheetah and Chetak have provided. The ambitious air defence SR-SAM joint development and production project with transfer of sensitive technology has been largely abandoned after completion of negotiations. The contract for Airbus 330 Refuelling aircraft remains undecided.
A new impetus has been given to nuclear cooperation with both leaders encouraging the conclusion of techno-commercial negotiations by the end of 2016 for the construction of six nuclear power reactor units at Jaitapur, with due consideration to cost viability of the project, economic financing from France, collaboration on transfer of technology and cost-effective localisation of manufacturing for large and critical components. That a roadmap for starting the implementation of the project in early 2017 has been agreed indicates concrete progress.
In the area of space, the two implementing arrangements for cooperation in definition studies on a future joint thermal infrared earth observation mission are important as night time monitoring capability is involved.
Hollande sees economic opportunities in an India growing at 7% plus at a time when the global economy is in bad shape, Europe is in crisis, China’s economy is slowing down and the remaining BRICS countries are facing economic trouble. He recognises the esteem India has for France and the growing affinity between the two countries. Both sides have done well to actively build on their common interests and mutually benefit from this joint effort.
Kanwal Sibal is former foreign secretary. The views expressed are personal.