France-India Ties: From Sporadic Cooperation to an Enduring Partnership (Part-II)

Iskander Rehman

The area, in which Franco-Indian ties have made the most progress however, remains that of defence cooperation, moving from the short term tactical relations of the Cold War, to the more long term and genuinely strategic. France has now become one of India’s most trusted Western defence partners, and Franco-Indian defence cooperation has been described by French officials as ‘discreet but wide-ranging and efficient’, both countries regularly trading information on terrorism, security in Asia and the Middle-East, and maritime piracy, amongst a host of other issues. There has also been talk in some quarters of a ‘Status of Force Agreement’, which governs the stationing of troops in mutual territory.

Annual bilateral military exercises are held, and whether they involve both countries’ airforces ( as is the case in the Garuda exercises) and both countries’ navies (the Varuna exercises), have gradually increased in scale and complexity. Indo-French naval cooperation is particularly intense. This is due to the fact that France, which still holds sway over a dozen islands and more than two million square kilometres of territory in the Indian Ocean, is a major naval power in the region, and views the Indian Navy as a vital partner in the preservation of local maritime security. Both navies are currently deployed in anti-piracy patrols off the coast of Somalia, and the latest Varuna exercises, which took place just a few weeks ago off the coasts of Britanny, and which involved Indian and French destroyers and frigates, various French aircraft, and a French SNA, were the most complex yet. All this shows that France no longer considers India solely as a defence client, put as a bona fide defence partner.

Much remains to be done, however, to further amplify the depth of Franco-Indian relations. Economic exchanges, for example, at only 6.5 billion Euros per annum, remain remarkably low, considering the size of both countries’ economies. Acutely aware of this, French and Indian officials have fixed a target of 12 billion Euros by 2012. Progress also needs to be made in the field of educational and cultural exchanges. Only 1300 Indians are currently studying in France, which is minute compared to other Western countries such as the US, the UK or Germany. In order to address this and facilitate student mobility in-between both countries, a CIFU or Consortium of Indo-French Universities was set up in 2008.

The future of the Franco-Indian arms trade is another cloud over the horizon. Indeed, while France remains one of India’s top defence suppliers, winning in 2005 a multibillion dollar contract for the purchase and co-manufacturing of six highly advanced diesel electric Scorpene submarines, it is also increasingly threatened by the ferocity of American, Israeli and Russian competition. In 2007, the Indian Air Force issued a Request for Proposal for 126 new medium multirole combat aircraft (MMRCA). Estimated at least 10 billion dollars, the deal is one of the biggest since the early 1990s. It is also one of the most competitive, with more than six global firms competing for the deal. Dassault’s Rafale is thus facing competition from Boeing’s F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet, Saab’s Gripen NG, Eurofighter’s Typhoon, Lockheed Martin’s F-16, and Mikoya’s MiG-35. Most analysts believe that France’s Rafale, which has already been temporarily excluded for failing to meet certain qualitative parameters, has little chance of winning the deal, and will most likely lose out to the Russian MiG-35.

France not only has to deal with India’s growing diversification in terms of arms procurements, but also with the growing multifariousness of its strategic ties. Indeed, whereas in 1998, France retained relatively privileged and rarefied position as India’s strategic partner, Delhi now holds high-level strategic dialogues with a wide range of foreign powers, whether it be Israel, the US or Singapore. Indo-US ties, in particular, have taken quantum leaps over the past few years, and far exceed Indo-French relations in terms of scope and ambit.

Paris, does, however, hold a sizeable advantage over the US. Indeed, many in India’s strategic community, while recognizing the strategic import of the recent Indo-Us rapprochement, fret over Washington’s real motives, worrying if India is destined to become America’s Asian proxy in its containment strategy of Beijing. There is also a fiercely anti-American streak amongst the more left leaning elements of India’s political intelligentsia. Indian policy makers’ vision of France remains bereft of such lingering suspicions. This mutual trust, a rare thing in the oft convoluted world of diplomacy, is something that both Indian and French officials should choose to build upon in their efforts to bring the burgeoning Indo-French partnership to a whole new level.

Author Note
Iskander Rehman is a Doctoral Candidate in the Asia Program at the Centre d Etudes et de Recherches Internationales (CERI), Paris and is attached to the French Ministry of Defence