Can France become India’s all-weather friend?
India and France have several common strategic objectives and very few, if any, disagreements on major global issues. India also needs powerful friends to prevent its creeping encirclement in its backyard and France needs a reliable ally in the Indo-Pacific, where it has many economic and strategic interests. IGB takes a 360-degree look at this very important but low-profile relationship.
Strange things are happening in India’s neighbourhood and in the wider Indo-Pacific theatre.
China has stepped up its muscle flexing and the use of money power and strategic bullying to increase its sphere of influence in this region. As a result, India is being surrounded from all sides by the new global hegemon.
In the past, Moscow bailed New Delhi out by vetoing anti-India resolutions in the UN Security Council. But given the new Sino-Russian warmth and Russia’s eagerness to share military hardware and training methods with Pakistan, this can no longer be taken for granted – at least not in all circumstances.
The US, under President Donald Trump, is too unpredictable to be considered reliable. Many strategic and foreign policy analysts think that France is best placed to emerge as India’s new all-weather friend.
Depth in ties evident
By all accounts, French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent visit to India was a very successful one. The two sides signed 14 agreements in the areas of nuclear energy, security, protection of classified information, education, environment and urban development, among others.
The 40-member business delegation accompanying the French head of state went back with deals worth $16 billion, including a project for modernising the water system in a Karnataka town and for the supply of engines for SpiceJet.
“Civil nuclear, space, and defence traditionally have been the tripod of this engagement, but in recent years, we are seeing greater convergence in new areas, particularly maritime security, counter-terrorism, and renewable energy,” a government of India official said.
The launch of the International Solar Alliance (ISA), the only multilateral body with its head office in India, is another major Indo-French initiative that will benefit not only the two countries but the world at large by helping mitigate the debilitating effects of global warming.
Need to go beyond financial terms
To become a truly defining global partnership, India’s ties with France have to go beyond corporate transactions and issues affecting only the two countries. The ISA offers a template but replicating it in other spheres will not be easy.
Meanwhile, there are other critical areas where France can step in. For example, it has provided India with the technology and expertise to build six Scorpeone class submarines that India desperately needed to maintain parity with its regional rivals.
But will France be willing to give India access to its nuclear attack submarines – either in the form of a 10-year lease or as technology transfer – as Russia has done several times?
Such issues are not determined by the financial terms of the deal but by strategic convergence. Answers to questions such as this will determine the extent of Indo-French ties in future.
The joint statement issued by the two sides at the end of Macron’s visit signaled how the bilateral relationship had grown by leaps and bounds in recent times.
Recognising that the Indian Ocean is critical to the strategic and economic well-being of both the countries and for the continued growth of international trade and global prosperity, India and France welcomed the “Joint Strategic Vision of India-France Cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region” as crucial for maintaining the safety of international sea lanes for unimpeded commerce and communications in accordance with the international law, for countering maritime terrorism and piracy, for building maritime domain awareness, for capacity building and for greater coordination in regional/international fora in the region.
Deeper military ties
Emphasising the importance of joint military exercises, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Macron welcomed the successful conduct of the Varuna naval exercise in France in April 2017, and the Shakti Army exercise in France in January 2018. The next Varuna naval exercise will be held in India soon and the next Garuda Air Force exercise in France in 2019. In keeping with recent heightened levels of military-to-military ties between the two countries, the two sides affirmed their intention to enhance the level of joint military exercises and maintain the operational quality-level of these exercises in the future.
Reciprocal logistics support
France is the second country, after the US, with which India has signed an agreement for sharing military logistics support on a reciprocal basis and is symbolic of the strategic depth and maturity reached in India-France defence ties.
The two leaders also noted with satisfaction the on-schedule progress in the implementation of acquisition related agreements, including the Rafale aircraft agreement signed in 2016.
Make in India
France is keen on participating in India’s efforts to develop its own defence industrial base and acknowledged that the Make in India initiative offers a valuable opportunity for Indian and French defence enterprises to enter into arrangements for co-development and co-production of defence equipment in India, including through transfer of know-how and technologies to the mutual benefit of all parties.
Combating cross-border terrorism
France has always backed India unflinchingly on the issue of cross-border terrorism and Macron reiterated this position on his recent visit. The two sides affirmed their long held position that terrorism cannot be justified on any grounds whatsoever it may be and it should not be associated with any religion, creed, nationality and ethnicity.
More importantly, the two sides called out Pakistan-based terrorist organisations such as Jaish-e-Mohammed, Hizbul Mujahideen and Lashkar-e-Taiba. This has left no room for any doubt as to which side of the French are backing. Also named were Al Qaeda, Daesh/ISIS and their affiliates.
France has been one of the early supporters of India’s peaceful nuclear ambitions – much before the US and the rest of Europe fell in line following the Indo-US nuclear deal. Modi and Macron acknowledged the conclusion of the Industrial Way Forward Agreement between NPCIL and EDF for the Implementation of six nuclear power reactor units at Jaitapur, Maharashtra, and reiterated the goal of commencing work at the site by the end of this year.
The project is envisaged as largest nuclear power plant in the world with a total capacity of 9.6 GW and will help India achieve its goal of generating 40 per cent of its total energy requirement from non-fossil energy sources by 2030.
Other areas of cooperation
In order to bring about a comprehensive improvement in the quality of the bilateral partnership, the two countries also agreed to enhance cooperation in a number of other areas such as space technology and exploration, science, culture and tourism.
Building another living bridge
Prime Minister Modi has made people to people contacts central to his foreign policy. In particular, he draws on the support and influence of the expatriate Indian communities to deepen and broaden mutually beneficial ties. Modi has evocatively called the Indian diaspora the “living bridge” connecting the two countries.
In the context of France, the two sides have taken a giant leap towards building such a bridge by signing a bilateral partnership agreement on migration and mobility, which will facilitate student and professional mobility between France and India by simplifying the conditions for entry and long-term stay in the two countries.
Both Modi and Macron appreciated the role of continuing people to people exchanges between the two countries and underscored the necessity of greater youth exchange programmes for promotion of understanding of each other’s cultures.
So, can this become a defining relationship of the type India has had with Russia? The platform already exists for one but whether the two sides have the gumption to take that final plunge will depend on how the Indo-Pacific geo-strategic sweepstakes play out.