K.C. Singh | India & France: Strategic relations to Vision 2047

President Emmanuel Macron of France was the chief guest at this year’s Republic Day celebrations. Amidst the public excitement it was forgotten that he was in fact standing-in for US President Joe Biden, who was first invited but later sent his regrets. It is the sixth time for a French chief guest, starting with Jacques Chirac in 1976, who attended as Prime Minister of France. It happened during India’s 1975-77 Emergency, when many Western leaders would have avoided coming. He attended a second time as President in 1998, months before India’s nuclear tests.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was both a Francophile and admired the French predisposition towards strategic autonomy. India also rested its foreign policy on the same principle. Thus, India felt comfortable building a strategic relationship with France on the three pillars of cooperation — defence, space and nuclear. Unlike the United States, the French did not bring ideological factors into play in conducting business with India in these core areas.

Underscoring this French laissez faire approach to foreign policy was the nonchalant reaction of the French to India’s nuclear tests in May 1998, when the US and its allies went berserk threatening India and imposing sanctions. The stopover visit to France by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee in 1998, when relations with the US were just normalising, reflected France’s pragmatic diplomacy. That is why France has been a natural partner of India in strategic fields for more than half a century.

The Emmanuel Macron visit, despite the short notice, is in keeping with the past warm relations and absence of irritants. The French keep relations with Pakistan calibrated to not annoy India. The January 26 joint statement details the themes in play in India-France relations. It recalls the Horizon 2047 Roadmap showcased during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to France just over six months ago, as chief guest at their Bastille Day celebrations on July 14, 2023. It provides an “ambitious and broad-ranging course for bilateral relationship”.

However, some facts need recalling. A French military marching contingent participated in this year’s Republic Day parade. A similar participation occurred when President Francois Hollande was the chief guest in 2016. Similarly, the Indian armed forces marched in Paris not only when Prime Minister Modi was the chief guest at last year’s Bastille Day but also when Dr Manmohan Singh was similarly honoured. Thus, the French extension of special courtesies to Indian Prime Ministers is part of a long tradition.

The two countries’ bilateral relations have always tilted in favour of defence and space. Among European nations, including the United Kingdom, it stands rather low at the fifth spot amongst India’s trading partners. It is also only the 11th largest foreign investor in India with aggregate foreign direct investment of $10.49 billion. But France excels at cooperating in strategic fields.

The joint statement covers a plethora of issues. It reflects the expanded Indian economic and strategic profile globally. In line with the Narendra Modi government’s penchant for catchy slogans, three new pillars are presented for bilateral engagement — “Partnership for Peace and Prosperity; Partnership for Planet; Partnership for People”. These are general statements of intent more in the region of philosophy than diplomacy.

But concrete ideas are also available in the joint statement. The Annual Defence Dialogue is recalled as the mechanism for enhancing the “co-design, co-development, co-production” of defence products. Based on the “atma nirbhar” principle, of self-reliance, Indian production capabilities are to be enhanced using foreign collaboration. The aim is to make India a base for exports to friendly nations.

An example is the Hindustan Aeronautics and Safran agreement to develop, certify, produce, sell and support helicopter engines. An existing joint venture produces Scorpene submarines, but no new deals were announced. However, Airbus Helic-opters and the Tatas agreed to establish a production line of helicopters for civilian use. The year 2026 was declared as the “India-France Year of Innovation”.
The joint statement prescribes that bilateral partnership must produce resilient and prosperous economies, ensure security, address global challenges, reinvigorate multilateralism and attain a stable international order. This sounds like utopian overreach as even the United Nations has failed to achieve these objectives. Two issues in the statement demonstrate this. On the Gaza conflict, besides condemning the terrorist attack on Israel, it is demanded that international humanitarian law be observed, humanitarian assistance provided and a “political process” initiated for a “two-state solution”. Neither nation figures in the latest ceasefire talks proposed by the US.

Similarly, the India-Middle East-Europe Corridor (IMEC) agreement, announced during the G-20 summit in New Delhi last September, is reiterated. However, while Israel’s existential warfare with Hamas in Gaza continues, talk of a corridor via the UAE and Saudi Arabia is fairly premature. Lauding it in the joint statement sounds anachronistic. It is also proposed to facilitate French language teaching, target sending to France 30,000 Indian students annually and a Young Professional Scheme introduced to accelerate the movement of professionals. Mutual diplomatic presence will be increased by new consulates in Marseille and Hyderabad. The Indo-Pacific is favoured for closer cooperation. France retains territorial possessions like Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean, and New Caledonia and French Polynesia in the Pacific. France also has a trilateral dialogue framework with the UAE and India. Thus, France broadens India’s network of plurilateral ties.

France provided India access to high technology when India still faced technology-denial regimes pre-1998. As Indo-US relations have improved, India’s options for acquiring high technology weapons and platforms have widened. But France remains a reliable and tested partner, much like Russia. It also provides a counterweight to over-reliance on the United States. Ironically as President Macron witnessed India’s Republic Day celebrations and parade, 70,000 French farmers were protesting across France. Over 40,000 tractors choked France’s main arteries. European agricultural policy changed in 2023, pushing for a green, carbon-neutral European economy. In particular, the obligation to leave four per cent of land fallow to ensure biodiversity riled farmers.

France has an Indian diaspora of over one lakh. Increased and facilitated student and professional egress from India is desirable. But the rising xenophobic right-wing parties can be spoilers in France or elsewhere in Europe. The challenges of climate change, regional conflicts, financial crises and the global power shift provide new opportunities for India-France engagement. They can equally create hurdles.

( Source : Deccan Chronicle )
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