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How France Has Surpassed The US As India’s Most Dependable Ally To Counter China?

Five recent happenings prove once again that it is still France, not the US, which is India’s foremost ally in the West.

Seen in isolation, each of these happenings may not appear that important, but when viewed collectively, the unmistakable pattern that emerges is that France was, is, and will remain India’s all-weather ally.

On March 31 evening, the fourth batch of three Rafale jets from France (refueled midair by friendly United Arab Emirates Air Force) arrived in India to join the Golden Arrows Squadron at Ambala Air Force station.

With their arrival, the number of Rafale aircraft in India stands at 14. The rest 22, as per the government-to-government deal by the two countries, will be delivered well in time.

On March 20, the chairman of Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) K. Sivan informed that India and France have been working on their third joint satellite mission, after undertaking ‘Megha Tropiques’ which was launched in the year 2011 and ‘Saral-Altika’ launched in 2013.

This will be an earth observation satellite mission with the thermal infrared imager TRISHNA- Thermal InfraRed Imaging Satellite for High-Resolution Natural Resource Assessment. There are also discussions on establishing ‘NavIC’ (an independent regional navigation satellite system that is developed and maintained by ISRO) reference station in France.

On March 27, Capgemini (a French multinational corporation that provides consulting, technology, professional, and outsourcing services) announced to open two 5G innovation labs, one in Mumbai and another in Paris.

These labs will be dedicated to accelerating the development and deployment of 5G and edge technologies, driving their data-driven transformation towards the intelligent industry.

French President Emmanuel Macron with Indian PM Narendra Modi. (File photo)

On March 29, an Indo-French trade body (Indo-French Chamber of Commerce and Industry or IFCCI), told ThePrint that France was looking at bilateral business growth in the areas of energy and technology. “Traditionally, it is true that a big chunk of Indo-French economic ties has been defense and aerospace. Now, we see a number of industries doing so well and coming into the limelight, even if we take the last two years,” Payal S. Kanwar, director-general of IFCCI said.

France is a significant source of FDI in India with more than 1,000 French establishments already present in the country. It is the ninth-largest foreign investor in India with a cumulative investment of $9.67 billion from April 2000 to September 2020.

These investments included “Schneider Electric’s $2 billion acquisition of L&T’s electrical business, Total’s announcement of $2.5 billion in Adani Green Energy Limited, and French airport operator Groupe ADP carrying out a 49 percent buyout of GMR’s airport business.”

The fifth major development is something that will take place during the three-day period of April 5 and 7, when for the first time Indian Navy will be part of the France-led war game ‘La Perouse’ in the Bay of Bengal.

Other participants will include India’s Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) partner countries — Australia, Japan, and the United States.

Until now, India was not invited for the French participated naval exercises, though bilaterally India and France do participate in the annual naval exercise called ‘Varuna’, which, incidentally will take place in the last week of this month in the Western Indian Ocean. Significantly, the ‘Varuna’ will also create history as it will involve this time the navy of the United Arab Emirates.

It may be noted here that France is the first major European power that has been at the forefront in accepting the notion of “Indo-Pacific” and supporting the QUAD framework.

So much so that analysts are now talking of QUAD plus (France) that will play a major role in the region. France was also the first European country to launch an Indo-Pacific strategy. Last October, France appointed its first ambassador for the Indo-Pacific, tasked with representing French interests in the region.

In fact, France considers itself to be a part of the Indo-Pacific, given its overseas territories of La Réunion, Mayotte, and French Southern and Antarctic Lands in the Indian Ocean. France has 8,000 troops in the region and a highly capable nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to back them up.

As a part of his Indo-Pacific strategy, French President Emmanuel Macron had in 2018 initiated the India-France-Australia trilateral (a la India-Japan-the United States trilateral dialogue), which has resulted in the institutionalization of what is called the “Paris-Delhi-Canberra axis”.

Accordingly, the three partners have agreed on reciprocal access to one another’s military bases. Building on France and India’s March 2018 agreement for “reciprocal logistics support between their Armed Forces,” France and Australia signed the Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA) in May 2018, and India and Australia finalized the MLSA in May 2020.

As it is, France is a major source of India’s arms imports, the surge coming through the 2016-purchase of the Rafale multirole fighter aircraft, and the reinvigoration of the delayed Project-75 for technology transfer of Scorpene submarines. Then, there have been upgrades of the 51 Mirage-2000s and about Rs 10000-crore acquisition of 490 MICA missile systems.

And here, the noteworthy feature is that unlike the other Western supplier like the US or Germany, or Great Britain, France has never created problems in technology transfer or imposed sanctions on India.

India has to take into account, for instance, the German laws that prohibit deliveries of weapons and spares during a War. Italian and Spanish laws are not clear on the issue. That explains perhaps the not-talked-about geopolitical reason behind India buying the Rafales.

Even otherwise, France has been the first Western power to have supported India’s claim for permanent membership at the UN Security Council. France, unlike its other partners in the Western alliance, did not impose any sanctions on India after the latter went nuclear in 1998; in fact, it did not even “condemn” the nuclear tests.

Besides, France was the first country with which India conducted a joint naval exercise called “Varun” after the 1998 nuclear tests; this exercise has become quite frequent over years. Similarly, the IAF’s first bilateral exercise in 2003 with a foreign counterpart—“the Garuda I”— was again the French Air Force.

Additionally, France is ever keen to provide nuclear reactors for power generation. There is also the Indo-French initiative that has seen the launch of the International Solar Alliance (ISA) with the aim to promote solar energy in 121 member countries and to mobilize over $1 trillion of investment for the deployment of solar energy at affordable costs by 2030.

In other words, India and France are now strategic partners whose partnership is not limited to just defense ties. As Salvatore Babones, an adjunct scholar at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney has argued in Foreign Policy magazine, there are two reasons why the French Indo-Pacific strategy centers on India.

First, the French feel that India is a safe place to invest in big-ticket infrastructure projects such as natural gas, solar energy, nuclear power, space exploration, and high-speed rail, besides defense. Because, unlike the case in China, the French have more confidence and faith in the Indian democratic and legal systems where their intellectual properties will be safe and contractual obligations guaranteed.

Secondly, France is using India to give a second life to its own last-generation technologies. The Rafale jet fighters that France has sold to India were developed in the 1980s and 1990s, and although they are still used as front-line aircraft by the French Air Force, they no longer represent the technological cutting edge.

By promising to transfer not only production but also know-how to India, France’s Dassault Aviation is in effect establishing a new manufacturing base for a product that would otherwise become obsolete. The same is the case with the still thoroughly modern nuclear technology (for India’s planned Jaitapur nuclear power station), which is no longer economical in Europe because of the high construction costs and falling demand for nuclear power.

There are merits, indeed, in the argument of Babones that “France’s Indo-Pacific strategy may prove more enduring than the China-containment strategies of the United States, Japan, and Australia. Indigenous capacity-building for manufacturing and trade is ultimately the surest guarantee of a free and open Indo-Pacific, and the French strategy is better suited than any of the others for helping the region’s countries help themselves.”

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