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France: India’s New Russia

France: India’s New Russia

The Indo-French bromance can only be mutually beneficial

TP Sreenivasan

TP Sreenivasan

As the full picture of the Indo-French bromance emerged after the latest visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to France twice in three days, commentators have begun to say that France is now as close to India as the Soviet Union/Russia was earlier.

The depth and sweep of the relationship can be compared only with Indo-Soviet relations during the Cold War. Such relationships emerge only when the international situation and the complementarities in the two countries dictate them.

In the case of the Soviet Union, the relationship transcended even ideological differences. In the case of France, there was no such barrier ever and there was a steady growth of political, economic, defence and nuclear cooperation, culminating in a multifaceted relationship that was witnessed this week.

At a time when the United States condemned India in the name of the international community in 1998 on account of the nuclear tests, the French voice stood apart from the rest of the western world on the need for nuclear power and a minimum deterrent.

It was in the same year that a Strategic Partnership was established between the two countries, which has grown into a bilateral relationship with a close and growing convergence of views on a range of issues.

As a new global order, characterised by the withdrawal of the US from its commitments in Europe and Asia came in view, it was only natural that France and India found each other as partners with great potential.

The bilateral visit at which a whole new architecture of cooperation was built and the opportunity provided to PM Modi to be a guest at the G-7 meeting took the relationship to a higher level.

The areas of defence and security cooperation, space cooperation and civil nuclear cooperation constitute the principal pillars of the Strategic Partnership.

In addition, India and France are increasingly engaged in new areas of cooperation such as in the Indian Ocean region, climate change (including the International Solar Alliance) and sustainable growth and development, among others.

In the economic domain, French businesses and enterprises have forged strong linkages with the Indian economy and industry. There exist vibrant bilateral cultural and educational linkages as also growing people-to-people contacts.

Indian diaspora also has a sizeable presence in metropolitan France and its overseas territories.

India and France share a close degree of convergence on a range of regional and global issues. France has continued to support India’s claim for permanent membership of the Security Council and the reforms of the United Nations.

France continues to support India’s bid for accession to the NSG. India and France are steadfast partners in the fight against climate change.

India and France have consistently condemned terrorism and have resolved to work together for adoption of the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism (CCIT) in the UN.

Following the Pulwama attacks, France steadfastly supported India and nationally listed the Pakistan-based ‘global terrorist’ Masood Azhar, which was followed up with the listing at the UN.

India and France have had regular exchange of visits at the highest level. Annual bilateral visits at the highest have now become a regular feature, not to speak of numerous visits at various levels, including an annual dialogue between the two defence ministers.

The crucial decision that the Government of India took to order the French Rafale fighter aircraft in 2010 was based not only on the technical capabilities of the plane, but the reliability of France as a supplier and a potential partner.

The charges against the deal have died down after the elections and during the present visit, it was confirmed that delivery will begin very soon.

Another fleet of 36 aircraft is under negotiations. The Indian Air Force certainly needs these as the old aircraft, dubbed as “flying coffins” are still fighting our battles.

Of course, Varthaman shot down an F-16 with a MIG, but that is another matter.

Although the details are not known, the Rafales are equipped with super-secret weapons and this is also a friendly gesture on the part of the French. France is also supplying six submarines over a period of time.

India and France have a rich history of cooperation in the field of space for over fifty years with ISRO and the French Space Agency, CNES carrying on various joint research programmes and launch of satellites.

Building on the historical linkages in the arena of civilian space, both India and France issued a “Joint Vision for Space Cooperation” during the visit of President Macron to India (March 2018).

The Joint Vision spells out the concrete areas of future cooperation in this field. France continues to be a major supplier of components and equipment for the Indian space programme.

It is in the area of nuclear energy that France has been supportive of India at the IAEA and elsewhere.

An agreement on civil nuclear cooperation was signed between India and France on 30 September 2008 during the visit of the then Prime Minister of India to France.

Under that framework, the French utility company EDF and NPCIL signed a (revised) MoU on 22 March 2016 for the construction of six EPR units at Jaitapur of 1650 MWe each.

During the visit of President Macron to India in March 2018, NPCIL and EDF concluded an Industrial Way Forward Agreement.

Discussions between EDF and NPCIL have been ongoing with the objective of expeditious realisation of the project, even though the nuclear market is down after the Fukushima accident and public opinion in India is against the French reactors in Jaitapur.

The windows that France opened to PM Modi by inviting him as a guest for outreach with the G-7 were most valuable. The bilateral meetings he had there, particularly with President Trump, were historic.

The open meeting between PM Modi and President Trump began on a tense note because of their different perspectives on Kashmir, but after the PM spelt out his position and the President conceded that the matter was bilateral between India and Pakistan, the atmosphere and the body language became cordial.

Trump, who had characterised Kashmir as “explosive’, said that the situation was now under control. Later, the White House claimed that the President reduced tensions between India and Pakistan and did not mention the mediation offer.

PM Modi had useful bilateral meetings, including with the German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The French President had also invited the Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif to be available at the meeting, obviously after consulting the Americans and President Trump acknowledged his presence.

It appeared that there were some contacts with the Iranians, but no announcements were made. It was clear that President Trump was exploring a peaceful resolution of the Iran nuclear question.

On hearing the comment that France was now India’s new Russia, a former Ambassador of India to France, Dr Mohan Kumar remarked that it was not a matter of France replacing Russia, but it joining Russia as a loyal strategic partner of India.

In other words, we have two good friends, not just one. The more the merrier!

(The writer is a former Ambassador of India and Governor for India of the IAEA. He is also the Chairman, Academic Council and Director, NSS Academy of Civil Services and Director General of the Kerala International Centre)

(Disclaimer: The opinions in this article are those of the author’s alone and not necessarily those of The Lede)