Wednesday, December 1, 2010
India knows that it can count on France’s support
The last time President Sarkozy visited India was in January 2008; he was then unmarried. Most of the coverage of his visit related to his romance with Carla Bruni and ‘his return’ to India to witness a full-moon at the Taj Mahal with her.
On December 5, this will be happen, minus the full-moon which could not be arranged by the Ministry of External Affairs.
But there are also serious diplomatic issues to be discussed between France and India, which have enjoyed an old and dependable strategic partnership, signed during Jacques Chirac’s visit to Delhi in 1998.
Sandwiched between the trips of Presidents Obama and Medvedev, as well Premier Wen Jiabao, Sarkozy’s three-day visit to India can only reinforce the bilateral partnership, particularly in the field of civil nuclear cooperation and defense.
When we asked Ranjan Mathai, India's ambassador to France about his expectation for the Summit (the first after Dr Manmohan Singh attended the French National Day in Paris in 2009), the ambassador explained that the July 2009 short trip had been important not only because the Indian Prime Minister was the Chief Guest at the Champs-Elysées parade, but “it helped us to review certain very important issues, particularly civil nuclear cooperation, defense issues and the strategic and political dialogues.”
Mathai pointed out that the French and Indian leaders have also met in Port of Spain (Trinidad and Tobago) in November 2009, in April 2010 in Washington and then on the occasion of the recent G20 Summit in Seoul. Three face to face encounters in one year for two personalities with seemingly opposite character traits, but who deeply appreciate each other.
In September 2008, France was the first country to sign a civilian nuclear deal with India. In this field, Mathai confirms that negotiations are progressing smoothly between Areva and the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL): “There are issues related to the cost or the technical aspects of the project, safety, etc. to be sorted out. If one looks at the entire picture, we have made substantial progress. Hopefully in a few weeks, we will reach some conclusions. Then, a techno-commercial contract has to be finalized, but this will take a little more time.”
Not only has the 9900-MWe Jaitapur Nuclear Power Project now received environmental clearance from the Ministry of Environment and Forests, but the Nuclear Liabilities Bill was passed by the Parliament. Paris believes that it is an important step forward in clarifying issues as the liability issue is for both sides a complicated question and the responsibilities between the ‘supplier’ (Areva) and the ‘operator’ (NPCIL) need to be clearly delineated. It is a long and necessary process.
The fact that a decision on the purchase of 126 medium multirole combat aircraft is around the corner is probably not foreign to the visit of all these Heads of States to Delhi (Obama is bidding for his F-16IN, Medvedev for the MIG-35 while Sarkozy is pushing for the Rafale). In an interview for the Indian Defence Review in October, when we asked Hervé Morin, the French Defence Minister (he was replaced by former Prime Minister Alain Juppé in a major reshuffle in November, but French policies remain the same) about ‘the contract of the century’, he answered: “We have a long-standing military cooperation [with India]. When India desired to diversify its military relations in the early 1980s, France responded and a relationship of trust was built, especially with the Mirage 2000s.” The Minister pointed out that “whether it concerns her candidature for a permanent seat at the Security Council or the amendment of regulations for civil nuclear energy exportation, India knows that it can count on France’s support.”
Paris had given its support long before Obama gave his emotional speech to the Indian Parliament. Moring thought that President Sarkozy’s trip “will make our partnership progress even further in all facets, be it facing common threats, intensifying our operational cooperation, or bringing the projects for equipping the Indian armed forces, launched together, to their fruition.”
Defense has always been a key component of the partnership. During a recent visit to Delhi, Admiral Edouard Guillaud, the French Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) quoted Kautilya: “An unfailing ally is one who receives and provides help because of old bonds, friendship and generosity”. He explained that India and France not only “share similar ideals of freedom, democracy and cultural diversity”, but the two countries also have common objectives, namely “a safer world, a better managed Indian Ocean and a more stable Afghanistan.”
The French Defense Minister spoke more concretely about “the supply of strategic equipment (fighter aircraft, submarines), and also state-of-the-art technology for the entire gamut of the Indian armed forces’ requirements”, he added “our own history has made us extremely sensitive to India’s desire to favour local production and develop the defence industry”. This has not been the case with many other countries.
Today, the main ongoing joint project is the manufacture, under French licence, of six Scorpene submarines at Mazagaon docks near Mumbai. President Sarkozy will probably visit the docks during his trip to Mumbai on December 7.
Apart from the long pending modernisation (known as ‘refitting’) of the Indian Air Force Mirage 2000 fleet, two joint development projects are in the pipeline: the Maitri project for a surface-to-air defence missile system, and the Kaveri fighter aircraft engine. The supply of reconnaissance and observation helicopters may also materialize during President Sarkozy’s stay.
For Paris, the Indo-French cooperation is centred at “the very heart of our security: counter-terrorism”. Concrete ‘operational’ cooperation is already taking place in fields like anti-piracy operations, joint exercises or officer exchanges and more importantly in sharing of intelligence inputs.
The visit to India of Jean-David Levitte, the ‘sherpa’ of President Sarkozy, during the second week of October was hardly noticed in Delhi. Monsieur Levitte is a very powerful man. In France, each and every file dealing with Foreign Affairs, terrorism or security comes to his desk. Levitte also acts as the unofficial National Security Advisor.
He came to India to prepare President Sarkozy’s visit, but also to inform the Government of India of the serious terrorist threats faced by France (several French hostages are held up by terrorist outfits in the Sahel region, Somalia and Afghanistan).
Both parties find that the joint air and naval exercises are of great value to increase mutual understanding. “If you ask the Services, they value these types of exchanges,” said Mathai. As an example, he quoted the fact that the Varuna joint naval exercises were held in the Atlantic in 2009, giving them a larger geopolitical significance.
Economy is also an important aspect of the relationship. Mathai called it the ‘second pillar of our relationship’. The creation in 2009 of a CEOs’ Forum co-chaired by Bertrand Colomb of Lafarge and Narayana Murthy of Infosys promised to further enhance the economic exchanges. The Forum has already met twice. Their main objective is to come up with concrete ideas about what needs to be done to build closer bilateral economic relations.
The French President and the Indian Prime Minister had placed the bar very high: a jump from 6 billion Euros in 2008 to 12 billion Euros in bilateral trade by the end of 2012, is a very ambitious target. Mathai is confident that it can be reached.
A full-moon on the Indo-French partnership would be a balance to a historically less reliable Indo-US collaboration.