Indo-French bilateral partnership: New approach

By K.N. Pandita

Prime Minister Modi visited France soon after Emmanuel Macron’s election in May 2016. Prior to him three Indian Prime Ministers had visited France since 1980. Not all formal visits of the heads of government move beyond the established protocol and patent rhetoric.

A Rs. 59.000 crore Rafael fighter aircraft deal with France is good enough to make France cosy with New Delhi more so when the second instalment of 35 aircrafts is still in the pope lime. But there is more than Rafael that meets the eye.

Foremost is the common security concern focused on India-Pacific life-line or what may be called new Indian Ocean Strategy? Commentators ask whether it will be the harbinger of graduating Quad-4 to Quad-5. This could the aspect of future shape of Indian Ocean security scenario provided the US and France are able to undo irritants in the context of Paris Accord. Access to each other’s oceanic basis and facilities is what is of significance.

India-France cooperation has to be analysed in the background of broad dimensions of China’s eco-political strategy in the Asian Continent with access to strategic Sri Lankan port of Hambantota, Gwadar and to African horn. Of late China has made a foothold in Maldives.

China’s stealthy intrusion into the Indian Ocean region is not meant only to monitor Indian maritime prowess but it looks into the eyeball of world trading nations that must have safe and hassle-free route through the Straits of Malacca right up to Far East. After monopolizing China Sea, Beijing has spread out its fangs to strategically crucial Gulf.

A significant development of recent days is Iranian foreign minister disclosing in Pakistan that Iran has invited both China and Pakistan to become participants in Chahbahar enterprise. Earlier also, Iranian President had hinted at it but the media did not take full notice. This is how China has been exerting benign pressure on Iran. Hopefully this dimension of India-Pacific Strategy has not been missed during bilateral parleys with France. French military bases in Djibouti, Abu Dhabi and Reunion Islands can be a force multiplayer for India, which itself is looking to build naval facilities in Seychelles, Mauritius and Oman.

India and France are not pursuing the conventional military alliance or defence pact strategy of cold war era but its modernized version of strategic autonomy. It is dilution of military alliance and takes into account a broad paradigm of how without giving provocation to any regional or global power security of trading channels can be maintained.

Another significance of Indo-French partnership and strategic autonomy is that of filling the void which has appeared after Russia cooling towards India and warming up to China. In consequence of expectation of CPEC to become beneficial to Central Asia at a later stage, Moscow has new thinking on her relations with Pakistan as well. This renewed thinking is boosted by widening of gap in US-Pakistan relations particularly in the context of Afghan fighting. . Russia warms up to Pakistan for its anti-US and anti-India role in Afghanistan though she is not likely to get bogged in the same morass in which the US had chosen to fall in the light of Mujahedeen war. We don’t think that Afghan resistance forces will receive anything beyond lip service from the Russians.

The question is whether France is going to fill the gap that now exists between India and Russia. The character of Indo-French relationship is likely to be on very different lines. Make in India will be the guiding hand for any facet of Indo-French cooperation especially in the case of upgrading India’s air and naval power that need much boosting. Strategic autonomy essentially means leaving space for India to develop its defence requirements indigenously but with full cooperation in necessary areas.

In terms of addressing infrastructural requirements for indigenization of defence production, important steps have been taken. First is the area of energy with two components viz. six nuclear reactors to be built in Jaitpur, and secondly the mega solar energy harnessing project for which France has made additional 7000 million Euro commitment.

President Macron co-chaired the International Solar Alliance (ISA) with Modi during his visit, and the two leaders also inaugurated a solar power plant at Dadar Kala village in Uttar Pradesh.

The high watermark of President Macron’s visit is a major Indo-French initiative with around 56 countries having signed the ISA Framework Agreement and 26 nations having already ratified it. This can be visualized as major breakthrough in Indi’s energy problem and once this is attained, the path for foolproof internal as well as external security will be laid.

The fruitful visit of the French President raises chances for India to find more support from world community about her rightful place in the NSG and the membership of Security Council also. Franc’s interest and perception of India in the context of global strategy at a time when Europe is divided by petty quarrels among its members will not be without impact on the European countries. It will be noted that talks between the two leaders and the press releases from both sides do not give more than necessary significance to the subject of terrorism. There is a casual reference to it in their talks. This is the first time that India has scaled down prioritization of terrorism in her talks with the head of the government of a country that has borne the brunt of Islamic extremism more than any other European country has.

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