Strengthening Ties with France and Beyond

Sub Title : India’s old friend and ally, France is fast emerging as a strong partner in defence and aerospace

Issues Details : Vol 17 Issue 3 Jul – Aug 2023

Author : Ajay Singh

Page No. : 48

Category : Military Affairs

: August 2, 2023

France’s defence equipment and technology offerings have emerged as a crucial alternative to India’s predominantly Russian inventory. The transfer of advanced technology, exemplified by the Safran engine’s 100 percent technology transfer, strengthens India’s self-reliance in defence production.

In the past few months, Indian diplomacy has achieved remarkable milestones, bolstering the nation’s global standing and forging strategic partnerships. Prime Minister Modi’s visits to the USA, UAE, and France have paved the way for robust economic ties, advanced technology transfers, and strengthened security cooperation. However, the most significant aspect lies in India’s evolving relationship with France, which has the potential to shape the future of Indo-European strategic ties. During Mr Modi’s visit to Paris as the Guest of Honor during France’s Bastille Day, it was symbolic that three Indian Rafale fighters flew overhead and a contingent of the Punjab regiment marched down the Champs Elysees, as he took the salute. It marked the historical connect of Indo-France ties and the way to the future.

Solidifying Historical and Strategic Bonds

But then Indo-France ties go back a long way. One million Indian soldiers fought in France during World War I; over 2 million participated in different battlefields of World War II. But the association, actually became a strategic partnership 25 years ago (coinciding with the visit), when France forged a strategic partnership with India in 1998, after most western nations shunned it in the aftermath of our nuclear tests. It supported India during the crucial civil-nuclear accord negotiations with USA, and has supplied critical technology and equipment, ranging from Mirage 2000 and Rafale fighters, Scorpene submarines and even nuclear reactors. It even used its veto to squash China’s raising of the Kashmir issue in the UNSC, in the wake of the abrogation of Article 370.

Charting a Path for the Future

This burgeoning relationship, based on sound economic, strategic and historical linkages, received a direction for the future with the unveiling of the “Horizon 2047: 25th Anniversary of the India-France Strategic partnership: towards a Century of India-France Relations. This  document outlined a roadmap for cooperation for the next 25 years hinging on the three pillars of “partnerships for security and sovereignty; partnership for the planet; and partnership for the people”. The slew of agreements signed by Prime Minister Modi and President Macron reflected that. They included common security concerns in Europe; the need for Regional Security Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific; a deal between Safran and DRDO to develop jet engines for Medium Combat Aircraft and multi-role helicopters;  Scorpene submarines to be jointly built by Mazgaon Docks and Naval Group of France and also cooperation in critical technologies like supercomputing, Artificial Intelligence and quantum technology. The two sides also agreed to work together on climate change and green technologies and bolster people-to-people contact by the opening of consulates in Marseille and Hyderabad. This personal contact will be enhanced by the flow of around 30000 Indian students to France by 2030, who have been promised liberal visas and work avenues in France.

Although India has strategic ties with 30 countries, France is fast emerging as its most significant strategic partner – perhaps second only to USA. But while India-USA ties are “the most defining partnership of the 21st Century” there is are fears of  US propensity to draw its allies completely into its fold and make them toe the line in all respects – as it has with UK and Canada. There is also a tendency by the US to meddle into the internal affairs of other nations. Although India has tilted towards the USA, its values it ‘strategic autonomy’; greatly – as does France – and will not slavishly follow a US stance.  India has held its own in its dealings with Russia during the Ukraine war, and France too has cultivated its own relations with Russia and China, inspite of NATO’s antagonism towards it. France and Germany seem to be of the view, that European security should be slowly delinked from the USA, and for that they need allies such as India. India too, would not like to put all its eggs in one basket. It sees Europe emerging as one of the poles of power of the post-Ukraine war world, and needs to cultivate independent ties with them – especially France and Germany.

Defence Diversification

France can also help fill the role of Russia in the earlier days. Russia’s closeness and dependence to China, implies that it may no longer be the dependable friend and partner it once was. It could succumb to Chinese pressure in its support to India, especially in a crunch situation. And then there is the crucial subject of equipment. The Ukraine war has shown the need to diversify defense supplies and move out of the predominantly Russian equipment we now hold. France can fill that void quite well. It has emerged as the second largest supplier of defense equipment to India accounting for 29 percent of our defense imports between 2018-22. More significantly, the technology it offers is a generation higher than that provided by Russia, and unlike the USA, it has no qualms about sharing it. For example, while the US-India deal for the transfer of GE F414 jet engines for India’s Light Combat Aircraft was much touted, it came with a caveat. It did not include the transfer of a critical part of the technology. France, on the other hand offered the Safran engine with a 100 percent technology transfer, that would enable complete production here, and also make the technology available for other uses.

There is also synergy in two other vital issues – the Indo-Pacific and the Ukraine War. India and France acknowledged the “special responsibility to ensure peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific” and both are aware of the long-term security threat emerging from China. France has a large presence in the Indo-Pacific with over 1.5 million citizens in its islands of Caledonia, La Reunion and French Polynesia. France has been undercut in AUKUS where its proposal to supply nuclear submarines to Australia was scuttled by USA and UK to provide their own. But, it could become a major member of QUAD plus, and its clout will enhance the grouping greatly. Even in the Ukraine War, while the US led western allies seem to feel that the only satisfactory end is the complete defeat of Russia, France is willing to accommodate Russia’s security concerns – a view that India shares. Perhaps India and France (along with Germany) can help bring some end to hostilities and prevent Europe from further carnage.

There are tremendous commonalities in our economic and security vision, and the path ahead seems to be well marked out with the joint statement that the two sides released. But there are still hiccups. For starters, Indo-French trade is a paltry $12.5 Billion – a fraction of what it could be. The incorporation of UPI in Europe, through Lyra, a French payment service, will give it a huge boost. But there is also a need to hammer out an India-EU Free Trade Agreement. That can raise the figure to around $100 billion by the end of the decade.

It was a little surprising that the joint document also did not mention the deal for the purchase of 26 Rafale M aircraft for INS VIRAT and VIKRAMADITYA, or the joint construction of three Scorpene submarines – a mammoth Rs 80,000 Crores program that had been cleared by the Defense Ministry and was expected to be announced with much fanfare in Paris. But then defense acquisitions have long gestation periods and this one is likely to fructify later.

Looking Ahead:

India’s engagement with powers like France, Germany, Japan, and the UAE fosters economic and security linkages with diverse nations. Such alliances, alongside the alignment with the USA, ensure strategic autonomy and hedge India’s bets in the evolving multipolar world.

With a comprehensive approach to diplomacy, India is poised to secure its economic and strategic security in the future, while nurturing enduring partnerships with France and other key global players.