Historical Background: To grasp the intricacies of Indo-French relations in the field of defence and security, it is necessary to first have a look at some issues which may seem unrelated, but which will help us to understand the historical background and get clearer perspectives on the future.
The Partition: Let us go back for a moment to 1946-47, when the British decided to leave the Jewel in their Crown. They were ready to depart from the subcontinent, but not to lose their influence in Asia. During the previous two centuries, the defence of their empire had been centered on the Indian subcontinent and the Indian Ocean was known as the ‘British lake’.
According to many, the Pakistani invasion of Kashmir opened Nehrus eyes; India had to defend itself. Nonetheless, India was still not ready when the Chinese descended the slopes of Thagla ridge on October 20, 1962.
The British Empire, born from a trading company, was basically a sea-empire. This has been demonstrated by the historian K.M. Panikkar, in his book, Asia and the Western Dominance. At the beginning of the 20th century however, two new factors appeared on the strategic scene: one was aviation (as masterfully demonstrated by the Japanese at Pearl Harbour in 1941); the second, petrol and the resulting importance given to the Middle East.
In 1946, when the British Chiefs of Staff were ordered to submit a report on the strategic consequences of Britain’s departure from the subcontinent,1 the generals agreed that Pakistan was the more important of the two future dominions; first because of the possibility of installing air bases in the north of the country (to control Soviet advances) and second, naval bases could be opened on the Arabian Sea in the South. As an added bonus, a strong support to Pakistan could have a positive influence on the Muslim states in the Middle East.
On August 15, 1947, the subcontinent was partitioned. The con-sequences are still today looming over the region. One of the results of the British assessment was that during the first decades after independence, the West most often took Pakistan’s side over India, particularly in the Kashmir imbroglio. This aggravated the tensions and resulted in Delhi seeing Pakistan as the major (and often only) threat to its security and thus choosing to lean towards the Soviets.
Though the French foreign policy did not tilt so blatantly towards Karachi, Paris remained an ally of the Western nations during the Cold War. French interests were in keeping a more balanced approach between the two former dominions. 2
Non-Violence: The Ideological Factor
Another aspect to take into consideration is the ideological slant of some of the first leaders of Independent India.
The new Indian government, which had championed the principle of non-violence against the British, was keen to show the world that conflicts could be solved without recourse to force. According to many, the Pakistani invasion of Kashmir opened Nehru’s eyes; India had to defend itself. Nonetheless, India was still not ready when the Chinese descended the slopes of Thagla ridge on October 20, 1962.
The Colonial Factor
Another factor which weighed heavily in the Indo-French relations is the hangover of the colonial era. The British left the subcontinent in August 19473, while the French remained present in five tiny establishments.
The total arms sales from France between 1950 and 1962 amounted to $794 million according to the SIPRI database,7 which made it the second most important after UK ($4,612 million) and before USSR ($612 million) and the US ($248 million).
For several reasons,4 Paris could not follow the British example at that time, but over the years it became increasingly difficult to come out of the entrenched positions and to find an honourable exit for France to return to India the suzerainty over the French Establishments in India.
Only the wisdom and the determination of the French Premier Pierre Mendès-France in 1954 saved both nations from a longer and even more unpleasant conflict.5
It is also important to note the parallel between the fate of the French Establishments in India and the situation in other French colonies, particularly in Indochina and North Africa.
The de facto transfer of the French Establishments was linked with the fate of the Geneva Conference on Indochina and the de jure transfer was ratified by the Parliament soon after the Evian Agreement on Algeria. These elements, external to the bilateral relations between India and France played an important historical role.
The Defence Relations First phase: 1947-1962
Historians usually consider the period between 1947 and 1962 as the first phase of the Indo-French relations. Year 1962 was for France the year it constitutionally departed from the subcontinent and for India, it marked the end of the dream of a Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai relationship.
Though the relations were not too cordial between France and India, as early as January 1947, the French Government asked for a ten-year extension of the 1945 agreement permitting military air ferries to fly across India. Nehru, the Interim Prime Minister noted: “Public opinion in India is very much against the use of force by the French Government against the people of Indochina and anything which we do to facilitate the use of this force is bound to be resented and vigorously criticised.” On July 16, 1947 an Agreement on Air Services between India and France was nevertheless signed.
By the end of the year, an interesting development occurred. Nehru was “anxious to help in every way in developing atomic energy in India.” He decided to unofficially send Dr. Homi J. Bhabha to enquire about the possibility of collaboration for the peaceful use atomic energy: “In view of the fact that India possesses very large resources of minerals suitable for the generation of atomic power, India is destined to play an important part in research on atomic energy in co-operation with other countries. We would like to welcome this co-operation, more specially in Great Britain, Canada and France.” Homi Bhabha had extremely cordial contacts with Frédéric Joliot-Curie and Raoul Dautry, the first heads of the French Atomic Energy Commission (CEA), founded by de Gaulle in 1945. At that time, Joliot-Curie was interested by two materials: beryllium and thorium. Nehru, interested in the program ‘Atoms for Peace’, saw the nuclear collaboration as discriminatory. Why should countries with colonial territories use raw material looted from these colonies for their research, he thought.
The French President had written to Nehru a few days earlier: “We can not approve that border claims are settled by military actions which is in any case disproportionate with the pro-claimed objectives [of the Chinese]“.
‘Discrimination’ will remain at the core of the Indian position in the decades to come.6
The French armament sales during this first phase were relatively large despite the factors mentioned above. Though the Indian Air Force did not directly take part in the conflict with China, 49 Ouragan fighter planes (produced by Dassault Aviation), 110 Mystère and 12 Alizée (of Bréguet Aviation) were in service in 1962. Further, 150 AMX 13 light tanks were sold to India after an agreement signed in 1957. The total arms sales from France between 1950 and 1962 amounted to $794 million according to the SIPRI database,7 which made it the second most important after UK ($4,612 million) and before USSR ($612 million) and the US ($248 million).
On September 22, 1962, General de Gaulle received Nehru in Paris. Nehru first congratulated him for the settlement of the Algerian crisis as well as the ratification of the cession of the French Establishments in India. De Gaulle replied that he was happy to see that India had dealt successfully with some of the issues on which the West had doubts at the time of independence. At the end of the meeting, Nehru pointed out at the danger coming from China “which spent most of its resources for preparing the bomb… It is for them a question of prestige,” explained a worried Indian Minister who however did not request the French President for armaments.8
Four weeks after the meeting in Paris, the Chinese attack India.
Unfortunately for the two nations, this did not translate into a significant improvement in the Indo-French relations.
On October 27, Nehru called French Ambassador Jean-Paul Garnier to tell him that it is “an invasion, pure and simple”. On November 30, Ambassador Ali Javar Jung met de Gaulle in Paris to thank him for his support. The French President had written to Nehru a few days earlier: “We can not approve that border claims are settled by military actions which is in any case disproportionate with the pro-claimed objectives [of the Chinese]“.
During this encounter with the Indian Ambassador, the General conveyed to him what would be the core of the French position for several decades. He told Jung: “France is the friend of India, not its ally and therefore will not provide any [military] support which in any case, has not been requested by India.” Paris was prepared to provide some military supplies to Delhi (and this in consultation with the US), but was not ready to intervene. For India, the war marked (at least temporarily) a U-turn in its foreign policy. The Indian Ambassador admitted to de Gaulle: “it throws the entire non-aligned policy of India back into question”.
In the years to come, Delhi would remain ‘non-aligned’ while in fact leaning towards the Soviet Union. The responsibility lies partly with the US and the UK. When India was down and bleeding, Averell Harriman, the US Assistant Secretary of State and Duncan Sandys, the British Secretary for Commonwealth Relations, visited India. They arrived two days after Beijing had unilaterally declared a ceasefire. They “made clear their governments’ willingness to provide military assistance to India, but pointed out the related need for negotiations to resolve the Kashmir dispute.”
Six rounds of talks on Kashmir between Pakistan and India followed the US and UK Envoys’ visit. The Western governements discovered that not only had the exercise failed, but Ayub Khan had already begun a dangerous flirtation with China.9 By that time, de Gaulle had started looking eastward; he sent one of his ministers, Edgar Faure to visit the Middle Kingdom.
Phase 2: 1963-1971
On January 31, 1964, General de Gaulle stated: “China, a great people, the most populous of the planet, a race patient, industrious, hard-working… a State more ancient than history, steadfast and proud of its ageless continuity; that is China of the age.” He had decided to recognize the People’s Republic of China. France had found a new friend.
The “˜commercial attitude of the French government was not always appreciated by its Western allies, but it enhanced Frances image in Delhi who probably considered France as the most reliable Western “˜friend.
The Americans were deeply unhappy. Chester Bowles, the new US Ambassador in Delhi told the Secretary of State: “Recognition is primarily [an] act demonstrating French independence of American control in foreign affairs.” And he added: “No concession or bribe of any kind will affect de Gaulle’s attitude or policies. He would regard any such gesture on our part as confirmation of the correctness of his views.”
This ‘independent’ attitude of the French government was in many ways similar to the one advocated by Nehru, minus of course, the Force de frappe.10 Unfortunately for the two nations, this did not translate into a significant improvement in the Indo-French relations.
After the October-November 1962 debacle, India turned its energies towards self-reliance. Nehru had to build up the nation’s defence against an enemy that the Prime Minister had thought to be a brother. During the four-week long India-China war, Delhi had looked westward for support. Paradoxically, though Moscow’s stance had been ambiguous during the conflict, during the following decades Delhi increasingly relied on the Soviet Union for its arms supply.
France remained a friend, not an ally. Arms supplies from France nevertheless reached $ 323 million between 1963 and 1971, while the tally of the Soviet Union touched $ 7,100 million (and $ 76 million for the US). Paris’s approach was businesslike and restricted to arms sales.11 During the period between 1962 and 1971, the French sales mainly pertained to Alizé aircrafts, AS-30 air-to-surface missiles, Entac and SS-11/AS-11 anti-tank missiles.
In the following years, the increase in American armament deliveries to Pakistan worsened the situation in South Asia (Pakistan was supplied $ 285 million between 1963 and 1965, while India received $ 75 million only). This probably emboldened Pakistan to start Operation Gibraltar,12 which triggered a new conflict between India and Pakistan in September 1965. During the short war, France followed the US’s leadership and imposed an arm embargo against the belligerents. Paris however continued to send spare parts for French aircrafts. The embargo was lifted in March 1966.
The ‘commercial’ attitude of the French government was not always appreciated by its Western allies, but it enhanced France’s image in Delhi who probably considered France as the most reliable Western ‘friend’.