France is the first country in the Western world to have forged a strategic partnership with India despite the undercurrents of India’s nuclear tests in Pokhran in May 1998
Emmanuel Macron, the youngest ever citizen of France to be elected at the age of 39 as the President of France, arrived in India on March 9 this year on a four-day state visit. This was his first visit to India after he took over his new appointment in May 2017. He was accompanied by his wife Brigitte Marie-Claude Macron, a number of senior Ministers from his Cabinet and a business delegation of CEOs of 40 French companies, including those from the defence sector. The French President and his team were accorded a grand welcome as, ignoring all protocol, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a display of extraordinary cordiality, was present at the Delhi Airport to receive the state guest and his team when they landed there at 2145 hours.
This visit to India by the President of France came around nine months after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to France in the first week of June 2017. The first interaction between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Emmanuel Macron had taken place in Paris barely a month after the latter had assumed charge as the President. Visit to India by President Macron in March 2018 also coincided with the twentieth anniversary of the establishment of the strategic partnership between India and France that was signed in 1998 between President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee. Incidentally, France is the first country in the Western world to have forged a strategic Partnership with India despite the undercurrents of India’s nuclear tests in Pokhran in May 1998 that had met with harsh disapproval by the United States.
The major areas for cooperation that constitute the pillars of the strategic partnership between India and France include defence, nuclear energy and space exploration. In the area of space, India and France already have a well established engagement and India would like to take it to a new level. During this visit, the two nations had plans to foray into new areas such as on enhancing cooperation especially in the domain of maritime security and the menace of terrorism.
Soon after his arrival in India, President Macron stated that the visit would open a new era in strategic partnership for the coming decades. He said, “Our two democracies face common challenges such as terrorism as also lots of common risks and common threats. But we have to protect this history and the state for freedom.” President Macron also affirmed, “I want my country to be India’s best partner in Europe. This is a strong message. I want Indian citizens coming to France for studying, becoming entrepreneurs and opening start-ups.”
Apart from an exhaustive meeting between President Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, delegations from both sides engaged in dialogue at the end of which a total of 14 agreements covering a number of areas of strategic importance, were formally inked and business deals worth $16 billion finalised. Some the agreements in the strategic domain and of military significance that have been signed or have been discussed at great length, are as under:
In the domain of the Indian airline industry, during the visit of President Macron, SpiceJet one of the upcoming low-cost carriers, signed a $12.5 billion deal with CFM International for the supply of LEAP-1B engines as also a ten-year services contract for an incoming fleet of more than 150 Boeing 737 MAX aircraft.
ISSUES OF RELEVANCE FOR THE IAF
Although the joint statements and other pronouncements issued after extensive discussions and dialogue between representatives of India and France during the visit by President Macron, did not specifically mention finalisation of new deals or agreements pertaining to the Indian Air Force (IAF), the visit will undoubtedly have a positive impact on the various Indo-French projects in the regime of the aerospace industry currently underway. Some of these have been elaborated on in the succeeding paragraphs.
RAFALE COMBAT JETS
In August 2007, the Ministry of Defence had floated a tender for 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) to replace obsolescent combat platforms in the IAF. After a long and arduous selection process, the Rafale from Dassault Aviation of France was identified by the IAF as the preferred platform. Unfortunately, this tender could not go through and was cancelled. In its place, as an emergency measure, the NDA government finalised an Inter-Government Agreement with France for the purchase of 36 Rafale combat jets for 59,000 crore to equip two squadrons as against six planned earlier. While this deal will bring only partial relief for the combat fleet of the IAF, for the Indian aerospace industry especially in the private sector, the Offsets obligation at 50 per cent of the value of the contract, will translate into fresh investments in the Indian aerospace industry primarily 9in the private sector, to the tune of 29,500 crore by Dassault Aviation of France.
The strategic partnership with France will help India achieve its aspirations to play a much larger role in the world and especially in the Indo-Pacific Region
The joint statement on the Rafale deal merely “noted with satisfaction the progress in the implementation of acquisition related agreements for 36 Rafale jet fighter aircraft”. It had no mention of the likely procurement by India of another 36 Rafale combat jets for which the IAF has already moved a proposal with the MOD in the backdrop of the rapidly dwindling strength of aircraft in its combat fleet. Indian sources said a decision on the second consignment of 36 Rafale fighters jets will be taken once delivery of the initial batch of 36 Rafale jets begins. It is rather unfortunate that the deal for 36 Rafale jets has landed up in an ugly and unwarranted political controversy on account of which, the NDA government would be hesitant to either commit to the procurement of the second lot of 36 Rafale jets or even release in the public domain any decision that may have been taken during the visit of President Macron. The French government definitely regards the purchase of Rafale combat jets by India as a significant step forward in the growing ties between India and France.
DEVELOPMENT OF THE KAVERI ENGINE
Efforts by the Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE), a laboratory under the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) having failed in its attempt to develop a power plant dubbed as Kaveri, for the light combat aircraft (LCA) Tejas, the DRDO has now been given the green light to work with the French engine manufacturer Safran, through the Offsets obligations under the Rafale deal for the development of a new engine for the LCA. The French engine manufacturer Safran that provides the M88 turbofan engine for the Rafale, is already working to modify, certify and integrate the Kaveri on the LCA before 2020. In all likelihood, it will be a completely new engine which will carry the old name. Later on, these companies will be involved in developing an advanced version of the Kaveri for the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), a fifth generation fighter aircraft currently on the drawing board. This collaboration between India and France for the development of power plants for combat aircraft is likely to influence India’s decision on the selection of combat platforms for the IAF and the Indian Navy in the future.
IMPORTANCE OF THE VISIT
Even though there was considerable interaction between the two sides to promote ventures in the regime of aerospace and defence industry as also billions of dollars of business deals were finalised, the visit to India by President Emmanuel Macron ought not to be seen as merely a “business trip”. The objectives of the exercise went far beyond business deals and was aimed more at reinforcing and re-energising the bilateral relationship between India and France. The strategic partnership with France will help India achieve its aspirations to play a much larger role in the world and especially in the Indo-Pacific Region. President Emmanuel Macron said that defence ties with India had reached a new high after the two nations signed a key security accord for the Indian Ocean to counter China’s growing influence in the region. Under the deal, India and France will open their naval bases to warships from each other, a move that is clearly meant to counter China’s menacing territorial ambitions.