Macron in India: Ties that keep growing
Indian and France are celebrating twenty years of partnership.
The accord signed in 1998 by President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister AB Vajpayee is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, ‘strategic partnership’.
It was inked during the French President’s visit to India: “Both countries share a perspective that the new world order has to be a genuine multi-polar world order. Our bilateral relationship is poised to grow in the coming months in a multi-faceted manner,” declared Chirac.
Over the last two decades, the partnership has steadily grown; no major political difference has darkened the sky between Paris and Delhi. France has constantly been supportive of India, particularly for a permanent seat for India in the UN Security Council and has shown comprehension for India’s nuclear policy. Though in recent years the term ‘strategic partnership’ has been devalued by the multiplication of such accords, in the Indo-French case, the 1998 momentum has been regularly sustained by new initiatives.
One is of course the Rs 59,000 crore deal for 36 Rafale fighters in September 2016; it will soon prove to be a game changer, partly due the offset clauses forcing the French to reinvest in India 50% of the total deal’s amount, but also for India’s western and northern fronts. China realizes this, its recent efforts to reinforce its air defence of the Western Theater Command, particularly on the Tibetan plateau, is definitily linked to the arrival of the Rafale in 2019.
As she arrived in India in October 2017, French defence minister Florence Parly stated in an interview to The Times of India that India was France’s‘major strategic partner in Asia’. She noted that the relationship was “the fruit of a long, shared history, grounded in an unshakable trust. We have always worked alongside India, in good times but also at difficult moments,” adding “our partnership is continuing to develop even more, including in very sensitive areas.”
These ‘sensitive’ areas make the difference.
Delhi knows that it needs to diversify its diplomatic relations if it wants to play a major role in the world. An example: for India’s engagement in the Indo-Pacific region, France could also be a crucial partner.
In an article for Carnagie India, C. Raja Mohan and Darshana Baruah wrote about Deepening the India-France Maritime Partnership: “Faced with growing geopolitical turbulence and more aggressive maritime maneuvering, India and France are eager to expand their strategic engagement in the Indo-Pacific.”
The authors elaborated: “As maritime security acquires greater salience in India’s foreign policy, New Delhi is increasingly looking to leverage its strategic partnerships, particularly with Paris. Although India and France have joined forces on a number of issues since 1998, regional cooperation in the Indo-Pacific has never risen to the top of the agenda. However, this may be about to change.”
The study cited a series of high-level discussions between New Delhi and Paris which focused on the prospects of a stronger maritime security partnership: “Central to the recent discussions has been the creation of a framework for strategic coordination in the Indo-Pacific. …As they explore their bilateral cooperation on regional security, the Indo-Pacific offers ample potential for such an enterprise.”
A highpoint of Macron’s visit could be a logistics accord allowing India access to the strategically important French base in the Reunion Islands near Madagascar. Another possibility is the opening of the French facilities in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa where India’s rival China has already a military base. This is part of India’s new maritime strategy.
Interestingly, another author, Emanuele Scimia wrote in The Asian Times about a new alliance emerging in the region. He cited the French Jeanne d’Arc’s naval task force, heading for East Asia and the South Pacific to practice with the British Royal Navy.
Though the objective of the five-month deployment is the improvement of the maritime cooperation between their navies, in reality, said Scimia, “it can be read as a new initiative by the two European countries to support the United States in its freedom of navigation operations in the region against China’s military activism.”
The task group consists of the Mistral-class helicopter assault ship Dixmude and the La Fayette-class frigate Surcouf.
Scimia further commented: “It is worth noting that the French-led task force will dock in countries at odds with China. Indeed Indonesia, Australia and Vietnam question Beijing’s claims to the South,” before concluding: “the prospective Quadrilateral (Quad) alliance among the United States, India, Japan and Australia to counter China’s military assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific space could be extended to France and Britain.”
Does it mean a Quad + Two? India and France will probably prefer the bilateral way to start with.
Incidentally, in December 1954, a previous avatar of the Dixmude, arrived in Mumbai to deliver 20 aircrafts with ammunitions: “Dixmude will stop at Bombay only for 5 days. In view of large quantities on board and short time available for off loading French air Ministry has requested for facilities as special case to unload explosives at Jetty instead of at anchor outside harbor,” wrote the then Indian ambassador in Paris.
Four years later, 22 Mystere and 13 Ouragan (‘Toofanis’) would be again delivered by the same Dixmude.
Another important development: during the forthcoming presidential visit, a deal could also be signed between India and Safran (one of the partners of Dasault in the Rafale deal) to develop a M88 engine for the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas.
A report in The Tribune recently hinted that “the M88 engine would be used as the base engine to adapt it for the LCA program or it would be an altogether new development using Safran technology to create a new engine from the ground upwards.” The LCA Tejas, manufactured by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) is presently equipped with a General Electric F404 IN20 engine. India is obviously keen to resurrect the Kaveri engine project which was originally started in the 1990s to develop an indigenous jet engine. Safran has now offered to collaborate on the Kaveri engine program as part of the 50% offsets for the Rafale deal.
Following Florence Parly’s visit, French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian came to India in November; in Delhi he mentioned common bilateral interests such as “combating terrorism, maritime security, cooperation in the Indian Ocean – where France and India are two countries belonging to the Indian Ocean Rim – we have a complete commonality of views, which calls for the strengthening of our partnership.”
Macron’s visit was delayed for a few months due to the importance of an important joint initiative, the International Solar Alliance (ISA). Launched at the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris in November 2015, the ISA wants to create a coalition of solar resource rich countries and address each participant’s special energy needs.
Finally, twenty years after Chirac’s visit, it would make economic and strategic sense for India to partner with France in more futuristic research projects such as a fifth-generation combat plane or an armed drone.
Modi and Macron need to prepare the future.