How Modi and Hollande broke new ground in 2016
The French president's presence as the chief guest at our Republic Day celebrations is a recognition of this reality.
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Within Europe, our strategic partnership with France is the most comprehensive. In addition to substantial economic ties, cultural exchanges and growing educational contacts, major cooperation in strategic areas like nuclear, space and defence gives a qualitative edge to our relationship with France as compared to that with other European countries. Even with the US, while our overall relationship is much larger in scope and impact, the levels of nuclear, space and defence cooperation have not been of the same order in a historical time frame as with France, or even at present if we take this triad as a whole. This highlights the importance of Indo-French strategic ties.
President Francois Hollande’s presence as the chief guest at our Republic Day celebrations this morning is a recognition of this reality. He is the fifth French leader to be so honoured. Of the several explanations why no other country has received such a distinction, one lies in Europe’s great weight in international affairs and our need to build productive partnerships with key European countries to safeguard our political, economic and security interests.
Europe has been important for us also for maintaining a balance in our international relations as between the West and others. We have also needed Europe to prevent the consolidation of a Western block against us in view of our foreign policy differences with the US on key strategic issues. With its tradition of foreign policy independence, France was our partner of choice in Europe.
Today, with changed circumstances, yesterday’s calculations are no longer entirely relevant. India-US relations have greatly improved and France, too, now works closely with the US within the NATO framework. An “independent” French policy has, therefore, less geopolitical salience today. With the Eurozone in crisis and terrorism spawned by religious extremism threatening the EU’s political and social fabric, Europe’s cachet as a continent of peace, prosperity and stability has suffered. Europe’s values are being tested with growing anti-immigrant sentiment and the rise of extreme right-wing political groups. All this has dented Europe’s stature and by extension that of France too, notwithstanding all political, economic, military, intellectual and cultural strengths of that country.
Our gesture in repeatedly inviting French leaders as chief guests at our R-Day celebrations has not boosted our strategic ties to the point it should have. Our political leadership understands the value of this relationship, but the system as a whole lacks the same strategic outlook. Whether the French side has always found the right balance between commercial considerations and strategic goals, needs analysis. Technology transfer as a strategic lubricant has been insufficient.
The contract for 126 Rafale aircraft has got reduced to 36. Despite decades of satisfactory service provided by French-origin helicopters like Cheetah and Chetak, the French have been denied the contract of light utility helicopters twice, and now it has been assigned to Russia. The ambitious air defence SR-SAM joint development and production project has been largely abandoned after completion of negotiations.
The contract for Airbus 330 Refuelling aircraft has got bogged down. Now, with the Modi government’s emphasis on Make in India in defence manufacturing, the emerging new opportunities require fresh strategies by French companies.
During Modi’s April 2015 visit to France, the two leaders had encouraged an early conclusion of techno-commercial discussions for six 1650MW nuclear power reactors at Jaitapur, with due consideration to project viability and manufacture of large and critical components in India. It is expected that within possibly a year tangible progress may occur in negotiations over the setting up of French as well as US (Westinghouse) reactors. Last year the 50th anniversary of Indo-French space cooperation was celebrated, but space-related cooperation, though meaningful, has not expanded dramatically so far, despite India’s growing space capabilities.
France has been most supportive for our candidature for permanent membership of the Security Council, but the decision is not in French hands. Similarly, France backs India’s membership of the NSG and other three export control regimes, but it alone cannot deliver. Our counter-terrorism cooperation is set to grow at the international level following terrorist mayhem in France in recent months, but how far France can help with our Pakistan problem is moot because of US reluctance to sanction Pakistan and China’s protective attitude. India welcomes more maritime cooperation with France. Both countries conduct joint military exercises involving the three arms. Cyber security has emerged as a new area of cooperation.
French participation in our smart cities project, railway modernisation and developing solar energy, discussed during Modi’s April 2015 visit, should expand in the perspective of growing bilateral economic ties. France is backing Modi’s Solar Alliance initiative launched during COP 21 in Paris. An intergovernmental agreement on Rafale is expected during Hollande’s visit, as part of more than two dozen agreements on the agenda.