France was the first to offer a strategic dialogue after our 1998 nuclear tests, forswear sanctions and announce a 'business as usual' policy towards India. This pragmatic position, surpassing the international anxieties of the moment, demonstrated its longer term strategic view of India's role in the world. It is this solid investment in a strategic relationship with India that gives particular value to President François Hollande's visit that begins today.
India is the first Asian country that he is visiting and he wishes to maintain the momentum imparted to bilateral ties by his predecessors from a different political camp, more so as global economic and political power is steadily shifting towards Asia. India, despite the current slump in its growth, remains a choice partner because of the size of its economy, future growth projections, entrepreneurial talent and opportunities materialising from external capital, technology and the flow of know-how.
Indo-French bilateral trade at almost €8 billion remains considerably short of the targeted figure of €12 billion by 2012, but the overall economic relationship appears larger than what official statistics indicate. If the total investments of French companies from all sources are calculated, the figure jumps from $3.5 billion to an impressive $17 billion. French companies employ 250,000 Indians, with several doing extensive R&D in India, a fact insufficiently known. Infrastructure, energy, food-processing, urban development, high-tech and green technologies provide untapped business opportunities, as do cooperative ventures with French companies that are global private public partnership leaders in the field of highways, water and waste water, ports, airports and power. These are the areas of focus for the Indo-French CEOs Forum.
All such high-level visits raise expectations about 'deliverables' - in this case the finalisation of the contracts for 126 Rafale aircraft and French-supplied nuclear power reactors at Jaitapur. Commercial negotiations in both cases will take time, but not inordinately, so the president would hope. The Rafale contract tops 60 years of a prolific bilateral defence relationship, with supplies of aircraft, tanks, helicopters and missiles in the past, a current submarine project, and joint development and manufacture of the surface-to-air missile Maitri in the offing, all proving that France is considered a reliable partner.
France's willingness to work within the rules framed under our nuclear liability act is important as an inducement to other suppliers. France has confirmed publicly its readiness to transfer enrichment and reprocessing technologies, underlining that among western countries France is the least restrictive in terms of transfer of sensitive technologies. In space, an area in which we have benefited from French cooperation, an agreement has been reached to launch another jointly developed satellite, Saral.
India values its friction-free relationship with France that raises no concerns about being dominated or clapped into unequal obligations. Remarkably, India's relations with France have higher comfort levels than those with other western powers despite its strong support for the controversial doctrine of humanitarian intervention that was demonstrated by its activism in Libya and now Syria. On these countries and Iran, India's views and interests differ, but without any contentiousness. A strategic partnership does not, of course, mean a commonality of views and interests across the board, more so between a developing country like India and a highly developed, industrialised country like France which has enjoyed great power for long and is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, a Nato member and a pillar of the European Union. On climate change and WTO issues, Indian and French positions understandably differ.
Watching Islamic extremism in Libya, its spillover into Mali, and the polarisation in Egypt caused by the Muslim Brotherhood, India doubts the wisdom of encouraging extremist religious forces to overthrow Syria's secular regime. The strategic vision of India and France in this regard has developed a gap which needs closing as the epicentre of such forces, backed by nuclear capability, is still in our region, and the gravity of the threat can escalate all round with efforts to accommodate the Taliban in Afghanistan, an enterprise that France, too, is discreetly encouraging. All these issues, along with the implications of China's rise and the situation in Pakistan, would undoubtedly get discussed usefully during the president's timely visit.
Kanwal Sibal was foreign secretary and ambassador to France
The views expressed by the author are personal