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India and France – A Bond Beyond Rafale Deal

India France Relations

“Nowadays we talk of 21st century ‘INFRA’. That is ‘IN’ plus ‘FRA’ is the alliance of ‘INDIA’ and ‘FRANCE’.” – PM Modi

In the recent past, the India-France relationship has been seen by many Indians in context of the Rafale deal. The general perception among many Indians maybe that India and France maintain a bilateral relation just like any other two countries. But there is more to it. The incumbent Prime Minister of India puts it clearly, “The relationship between India and France is hundreds of years old. Our friendship rests not on any selfishness but on solid ideals of ‘Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. “

When India and France came together

Since the 1960s, France has been supplying aircraft and helicopters to India such as Mystere, Alize, Alouette, Mirage, and now Rafale. It has also supplied Scorpene submarines to India.

In the 1970s, France has not only helped in setting up ISRO’s launch site at Sriharikota but also in providing rocket technologies to India. Viking and Centaure are two examples of such technologies.

In the 1980s, when USA denied supply of nuclear fuel for Tarapur power station, France had filled the gap.

In the 1990s, after India’s nuclear test at Pokhran, France was the first major country to support India and hold the dialogues.

India has close to 35 strategic partnerships and the first partnership was signed with France in 1998.

Post-Vajpayee era and hesitations of UPA

The baggage of Non-Alignment Movement (NAM) and suspicion about security engagement with western powers, India’s relation with France could not improve substantially. Moreover, the rise of China with its growing power projection in the Indo-Pacific region through Maritime Silk Road Initiative (MSRI), UPA appeared to be reluctant to challenge it.

However, change of government in 2014 with Narendra Modi as PM brought a paradigm shift with more assertive Indian foreign policy and overcoming “hesitations of the history.” E.g. India and France had formed the International Solar Alliance in 2015.

Security cooperation in the Indian Ocean region

China has been expanding its sphere of influence in the Indian Ocean, the backyard of India, through “string of pearls” ensuring geopolitical transformation in the Indian Ocean region. Some instances are:

  • Sale of submarines to Bangladesh and Thailand
  • Prospect of the naval base in Gwadar of Pakistan and growing naval presence in the region
  • Chinese submarine docked in the Colombo port in 2014
  • Disputes in the South China Sea

France is resident power in Indian and Pacific Ocean. It retains Réunion and Mayotte islands in the Indian Ocean and New Caledonia and French Polynesia in the South Pacific.

Source: Wikipedia

Moreover, France has a military presence in Djibouti (where China established its first foreign military base) and Abu Dhabi. This gives France access to major chokepoints like the Bab-el-Mandeb (near Djibouti) and Strait of Hormuz (near Abu Dhabi) in the West Indian Ocean.

India is also building strategic air and sea facilities in the Agaléga (Mauritius) and Assumption (Seychelles) islands. Further, India, with its own Andaman and Nicobar Islands located almost near the Strait of Malacca (a significant chokepoint in the eastern Indian ocean), can form a strategic partnership with France ensuring security of the Indian Ocean region.

Cooperation in Africa

Africa continent is becoming an important region. India is the third-largest partner of Africa after China and EU. A large portion of Africa is French-speaking and India has considerable presence in the continent. Recently, Modi government announced the opening of 18 new embassies, of which 13 are in Africa. The bulk of those is in Francophone Africa (given in the map above) where France can help India build presence and influence.

Economic prospect

France can also contribute to India’s island territories of Andaman and Nicobar by sharing expertise and experience. Due to overseas territories and islands in various oceans, France has one of the largest Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the world. India can thus realise the economic potential of its own vast EEZ.

Apart from USA and Russia, France also has the technologies for nuclear submarine, nuclear reactors and nuclear aircraft carrier which India can get benefitted from.

Both India and France have huge potential for tourism. The number of Indian students going for higher studies to France has increased from 2500 per year to nearly 10,000 per year.

Further, India and France had joint satellite missions for meteorology, climate change, and oceanography.

Strategic cooperation

Apart from Russia, France is also considered a more reliable ally wielding the veto power in United Nations Security Council (UNSC). It has supported India on abrogation of Article 370. Paris also supports India’s bid for permanent membership in the UNSC.  Traditional cooperation in defence, space, and civil nuclear domains is now expanded to counter-terrorism, maritime cooperation and cybersecurity.

Recently, during PM Modi’s visit to France in August 2019, India and France vowed to fight violent and hateful content online with a commitment to open and reliable cyberspace. Cooperation in Artificial Intelligence is on top of the agenda.

Thus, the Indo-French partnership opens avenues to shape the multilateral global order with like-minded countries for the 21st century.