April 9, 2015, The Hindu
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If India & France move beyond Rafale deal stalemate, they could achieve a lot in areas of nuclear technology, regional cooperation, climate talks.
There is quite an air of anticipation around the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to France. The government’s foreign policy pace has been enviable, and Narendra Modi has demonstrated a remarkable aptitude in gauging the mood and the space to manoeuvre with various partners. He has revitalised old relationships and lent them his energy. He has also achieved some real strategic gains,such as the one in Seychelles. The visit to France is pregnant with possibilities that are rooted in a historic context and which now need to be leveraged on a broader plane.
France has always been a critical partner to India in high technology areas. Its bid to aid India in the diversification of its defence sector began as early as 1953, when the Dassault-Ouragan fighters were supplied to the India Air Force and played a leading role in the 1961 liberation of Goa. Significantly, when India-U.K. defence relations soured in the 1970s, France emerged as the only western power willing to supply India with state-of-the-art weaponry and support its space programme and nuclear development. The importance of France as a key partner was accentuated in 1998 when, following India’s nuclear tests, France actively thwarted United Nations Security Council sanctions and forced a toning down of the final language even as the Russians dithered. During that period, India’s agreement to launch satellites from French Guinea stayed intact despite the sanctions imposed by other European Union countries across a range of technological sectors, especially space. In 1999, during the Kargil war, the French maintained a supply of spares to the IAF, which allowed it to operate without worrying about expending smart weapon reserves.
France was arguably the first western country to de-hyphenate its relations with Pakistan from those with India, deciding that the artificial “balance of power” equation between the two was passé. Today, France is at the forefront of India’s ambitions of modernising its sub-surface fleet. Scorpène class submarines are being built at Mazagaon docks and Dassault’s Rafale has won the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) tender. India’s only dedicated military satellite, the GSAT-7, was launched from Ariane 5, from Kourou.
Despite all this, it seems as if the tenor of the Indo-French engagement is being determined only by the progress on the Rafale deal. Much like the U.S. and India relationship, which had to find a way past the Civil Nuclear Agreement that hung heavy like the proverbial albatross, the India-France partnership must move beyond the circular meanderings that the negotiations look like to outsiders. One way or another, we must strive for an early conclusion, as this is not just about one set of aircraft but about investment in a host of current and future possibilities presented by India’s growing economic and geo-strategic strength. The Rafale deal must be placed in a broader framework of association. This framework could include three key elements, among others.
The first is for France to translate into action its previously expressed acceptance of India’s stance of nuclear exceptionalism and for the two countries to enter into full-spectrum collaboration. Such a partnership should be aimed at reducing the incubation time of Indian nuclear technologies and would cover the full nuclear cycle, including reactors, enrichment and reprocessing. This nuclear cooperation would logically extend into the sphere of military nuclear propulsion. The upcoming French Barracuda class SSN, for example, is optimally suited to the Indian Navy’s needs. If India buying the Rafale is the truest sign of India’s commitment to the relationship, then the nuclear submarine may well be the litmus test of French reciprocity.
But, again, it is important not to get fixated only on the big-ticket items but to use the other opportunities that signature government initiatives like “Skilling” and “Make in India” offer alongside these big deals. The French could, for example, help develop the defence sector eco-system in India, especially in the small and medium segments, investing in skills and capacity building here. This is where the real value addition takes place in the defence business and this could be the differentiator between France and other countries.
The second element must be regional cooperation. Increasingly, the interests of the two countries have intersected and their views tend to be similar even if their positions are not. Much of this is because Indian and French foreign policies share the same fundamental view of strategic autonomy and refuse to cede security primacy to one or two actors. It was because of this that India had, in 2013, co-sponsored a UN resolution that paved the way for French intervention in Mali. This is why it needs to cooperate in the Indian Ocean, West Asia and North Africa. India and France have significant interests here and it is perhaps time to build a robust platform for dialogue that will allow the two nations to cooperate meaningfully.
West Asia and North Africa are in the midst of a turbulent period of dramatic change. India’s chief task is to secure its energy source, the safety of its diaspora, and the stability of its extended neighbourhood. France will continue to play a significant role in the region.
As for the Indian Ocean area, France is a major power here and has demonstrated some degree of interest in cooperating with India. A focussed engagement would also be a natural extension of the collaboration envisaged here between the U.S. and India earlier this year. Co-investing with France in a ‘research’ facility located in Mauritius may serve as the point of convergence for such a regional play. This could form the basis for intensified cooperation on maritime domain awareness, building capacity in Indian Ocean Rim countries, and in honing synergistic strategies to deal with humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
Accord on climate
Finally, France is set to host the most important of climate conventions at the end of this year, one that will determine the successor to the Kyoto Protocol. This makes for an important area where the two countries can cooperate. The climate agreement can impact energy access and energy options for most countries, including India. The French are familiar with the Indian effort to eliminate poverty and the principal role that low-cost energy could play in meeting this goal.
The Paris climate meet will be an optimal moment for India to stop being defensive about the issue. It must unhesitatingly showcase all that it has already undertaken and achieved in responding to the challenge of climate change. It must clearly signal what it seeks from the outcome to protect its development space. And France, with its agenda-setting capacity and consensus-building role, must strive to ensure a climate deal that is fair and equitable and allows India critical room to manoeuvre.
(Samir Saran is vice-president and senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.)