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Indo-French strategic talks tomorrow

By C. Raja Mohan

NEW DELHI, JULY 29. As they prepare to hold the seventh round of the strategic dialogue here on Tuesday, India and France will be looking for ways to impart greater political credibility and technological substance to their expanding bilateral relations.

Six rounds of talks over the last three years between Mr. Brajesh Mishra, Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, and the French Special Envoy, Mr. Gerard Errera, have helped draw the two nations closer on a number of issues.

Nevertheless the two senior officials are conscious of the need to supplement the on-going ``process'' of bilateral engagement with an emblematic ``product'' that can showcase the special relationship between India and France. They might want to clinch a high profile joint venture that will underscore the political bonhomie between the two nations.

In the context of a budding romance between India and the United States under the Bush Administration and the consolidation of Indo-Russian relations under the President, Mr. Vladimir Putin, defining the contours of the partnership with France has become a major foreign policy imperative for India.

The Indo-French strategic dialogue was initiated in the wake of the May 1998 nuclear tests that drew harsh responses from much of the world. France, however, played a key role in fending off the efforts by the international community to isolate India in the post-Pokhran phase.

Paris also opposed attempts to impose sweeping international sanctions and excessive arms control demands against New Delhi. All this was part of conscious strategy in Paris that bet on India's emergence as a major power and the immense potential of bilateral cooperation.

At the political level, India and France agree on the need to promote ``multipolarity'' in world affairs. But as the context of that debate changes, there are interesting variations in the political postures of New Delhi and Paris.

As part of its new outreach to the United States, India has welcomed the controversial missile defence initiative of the Bush Administration. In Europe, France has led the charge against the American attempts to change the rules of the nuclear game.

At their last meeting in Paris in January, Mr. Mishra and Mr. Errera had discussed the implications of the U.S. proposals on missile defence. As they pick up the threads of that conversation, the two sides will have a lot to discuss on the impact of missile defences on the geopolitical equations among the U.S., Europe, Russia and China. Besides looking at a stronger commercial relationship, France has sought to emerge as an important partner of India in the defence and high-technology sectors.

The Mishra-Errera dialogue has promoted an institutionalisation of contacts between the two defence establishments.

India and France have also begun to explore prospects for long- term cooperation in the production of weapons and military equipment. No major arms deal, however, has been finalised.

France has also been keen on supplying nuclear reactors to meet India's growing energy requirements. Despite the international restrictions on nuclear cooperation with India, France has opened a dialogue with India on atomic energy issues. Paris has also been supportive of India's hopes of joining the global club of nuclear exporters.

On the question of nuclear cooperation, Russia has scored over France by signing a new protocol with India, during Mr. Putin's visit here last November. The time is now for France to come up with unconditional proposals for civilian nuclear cooperation, that could concretise the idea of a special relationship between the two countries.

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