What makes the India-France ‘strategic partnership’ tick

The partnership, which is now moving from government domains to commercial and civil spaces, reflects maturity and resilience

February 01, 2024 12:16 am | Updated 09:07 am IST

At the Republic Day celebrations

At the Republic Day celebrations | Photo Credit: ANI

The French President, Emmanuel Macron, was the chief guest at India’s Republic Day this year, making it his third visit to India, after his 2018 state visit and last year for the G-20 summit hosted by India. Coming within six months of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit on July 14, 2023, as the chief guest at France’s Bastille Day, it is clear that the two countries do share a ‘Strategic Partnership’ that is special. It is no secret that United States President Joseph Biden had been invited initially and his visit was to be followed by a Quad summit that had been accepted by the Australian and Japanese leaders when Mr. Biden declared his inability to travel. The fact that Mr. Macron stepped in readily highlights the personal ties that he and Mr. Modi have established, and the importance they attribute to the relationship.

Origins of strategic convergence

French President Jacques Chirac was the chief guest at the Republic Day in 1998 when India established its first Strategic Partnership. In a significant statement, Mr. Chirac declared that India’s exclusion from the global nuclear order was an anomaly that needed to be rectified. The ‘Strategic Partnership’ was tested when India undertook its series of nuclear tests in May 1998 and declared itself a nuclear weapon state. When compared to other countries, France was the first country to open a dialogue with India and displayed a greater understanding of India’s security compulsions. It was the first P-5 country to support India’s claim for a permanent seat in an expanded and reformed UN Security Council.

India and France have valued strategic autonomy, in their own fashion. India adopted non-alignment. After the Second World War, France was one of the founding members of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in 1949 and hosted the NATO headquarters; it withdrew from its integrated military command in 1966 due to reservations over U.S. insistence on subordinating French nuclear deterrent to NATO and accepting any collective control that General Charles de Gaulle felt would dilute French sovereignty, forcing NATO to shift its headquarters to Brussels.

After the Cold War ended, both countries were quick to espouse the virtues of multipolarity. French discomfort with a unipolar system was clear when French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine described USA as a ‘hyperpuissance’ and openly spoke out in favour of multipolarity, forming a natural convergence with India’s ambitions of seeking strategic autonomy. As a resident power in the Indian Ocean, France was quick to realise the geopolitical focus shifting from the Euro-Atlantic to the Asia-Pacific and decided on India as its preferred partner in the region.

Both France and India share a common trait of ‘civilisation exceptionalism’ and pride themselves on their ‘argumentative intellectualism’ but have wisely refrained from preaching to each other. Though part of the western world, France, as a non-Anglo-Saxon nation, found it easier and more natural to engage with India on equal terms.

Building the partnership

The nuclear dialogue, established in May 1998, grew into a broader strategic dialogue and was elevated to the level of the National Security Advisers. From the original three pillars of nuclear, space and defence, the agenda gradually expanded to include counter-terrorism, intelligence sharing and cyber-security issues. Convergence has also evolved on global challenges such as climate change, reform of multilateral development institutions, globally beneficial Artificial Intelligence, and as the joint statement indicates, ongoing conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza.

On the defence side, six Scorpene submarines have been built by Mazagon Dock Shipbuilders Limited with transfer of technology from the Naval Group. Technology sharing memoranda of understanding and acquisitions of short-range missiles and radar equipment were concluded. Joint exercises between the navies, air forces and the armies were instituted in 2001, 2004 and 2011, respectively. The government-to-government agreement for 36 Rafale aircraft, salvaged out of the prolonged negotiations for the original 126 which were at an impasse, has been concluded. Its offset target of 50% (nearly ₹25,000 crore), has helped in building up India’s budding aerospace industry.

During Mr. Modi’s visit to France last year, an announcement regarding a further acquisition of three more Scorpenes with enhanced features of air-independent-propulsion and 26 Rafale M aircraft for India’s new aircraft carrier was made, with negotiations to be concluded by the end of 2024.

Mr. Macron’s visit saw the conclusion of a India-France Defence Industrial Road map that fits in with the goal of atmanirbharta. Tata Advanced Systems Ltd. and Airbus concluded an agreement to set up a final assembly line by 2026 for H125 civilian helicopters. A final assembly line for C-295 military transport aircraft has already been set up in Vadodara by the two partners. Collaboration between Safran, the Defence Research and Development Organisation and its Gas Turbine Research Establishment is being stepped up for designing, developing, and producing an aircraft engine for India’s fifth generation aircraft (Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft) with 100% transfer of technology. This is a major step forward from the agreement concluded with the U.S. to permit technology transfer to HAL to produce the General Electric F-414 engine to power the Tejas Mk2 fighter aircraft. However, the GE engine is a 1990s design while the Safran project will entail defining parameters, co-designing, engineering, certification, in addition to production. Akasa Air has signed a $5 billion agreement for over 300 LEAP-1B engines to power its fleet acquisition of 170 Boeing MAX aircraft. This engine is a Safran-GE joint venture product and together with Safran’s Snecma engines powering the Rafale and Rafale M, sets the stage for it to set up maintenance, repair and operations in India.

Cooperation in the space domain began in the 1960s with French assistance to set up the Indian launch facility at Sriharikota but languished in later years because of export controls. The strategic dialogue helped restart this cooperation and the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) and the French Space Agency (CNES) now work on joint missions. The visit saw a new MoU being signed by NewSpace India Limited, a Government of India company under the Department of Space and the commercial arm of ISRO, and French satellite launch company Arianespace for collaboration on space launches. In addition, with France converting its air force into the French Air and Space Force and India setting up the Defence Space Agency, the two ministries of defence are looking to work together in optimising space domain awareness.

Broadening and deepening the partnership

The challenge for both countries has been to take the partnership out of the government domains into the commercial and civilian spaces. As a result, joint working groups on a range of subjects covering agriculture, environment, civil aviation, IT and telecom, urban development, transportation, culture and tourism have been set up over the years.

One of the success stories has been the growing number of Indian students going to France for higher education. A decade ago, it was less than 3,000 and today it is upwards of 10,000. The target is now 30,000 by 2030. The visa issue is being addressed with a five-year Schengen visa for Indians who pursue a post-graduate course in France. The operationalisation of the Young Professionals Scheme under the Migration and Mobility Partnership Agreement will help. Last year, the University Grants Commission revised rules regarding foreign universities setting up campuses in India. Sorbonne University, established in the 13th century, is globally renowned, and has had a campus in the United Arab Emirates since 2006. A campus in India should be identified as a priority objective.

There are nearly 1,000 French companies in India including 39 of the CAC 40 (‘the most influential benchmark of performance in the French economy’) while nearly 150 Indian businesses have established a presence in France. In the past, Indian companies saw the United Kingdom as the entry point for Europe. Post-Brexit, France is an entry point for Europe and Francophonie!

‘Strategic Partnership’ does not require convergence on all issues but sensitivity so that differences, where these exist, are expressed in private and not publicly. This is where India-France ties, nurtured over the last quarter century, reflect maturity and resilience.

Rakesh Sood is a former Ambassador to France and currently Distinguished Fellow at the Council for Strategic and Defence Research

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