G. Parthasarathy assesses the significance of a recent visit to India by France’s President Emmanuel Macron
While the primary focus of public attention in India over the years has been on its relations with immediate neighbours, as well as the US, Russia and China, there has been little consideration paid to the importance of New Delhi’s ties with European powers, and particularly France. Very few, even in India, understand the key role that France has played in cooperation with India in areas such as defence, space, offshore exploration of gas and nuclear energy. France has long been an important supplier of defence equipment to India, ranging from tanks and fighter aircraft to submarines and anti-tank missiles. Moreover, even well before President George W. Bush moved to end global nuclear sanctions against India, France had laid the ground to move forward on this issue. This mutual understanding was enhanced when Prime Minister Modi signalled a major change in India’s policies on environmental protection and played a vital role in not only changing India’s past policies, but also in mobilising the support of developing countries for the Climate Change Agreement in Paris.
The need for mutual cooperation between India and France has been increasingly felt in New Delhi in recent days, as the Trump Administration is perceived as being rigid on global economic issues, with its ‘America First’ policies signalling a move away from multilateralism. This has been accompanied by concerns about Russia’s ever closer links with China in the face of unrelenting American hostility, especially on developments in Afghanistan. With the growing propensity of China to display its muscle power across the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, New Delhi has entered into a partnership in the ‘Quad’ – comprising the US, Japan, India and Australia – to enhance freedom of navigation and security of sea-lanes across the Indo-Pacific region. This concern was heightened largely by President Xi Jinping’s ‘One Belt One Road’ project, which effectively encircles India, not only across the Eurasian land mass but also the sea-lanes of the Indian Ocean.
With the UK engrossed in its exit from the European Union and, in any case, long committed to ending a strategic presence ‘East of Suez’, and Germany engaged in sorting out issues of government formation, President Macron’s visit was timely. Macronis seeking new avenues for building the architecture of a stable balance of power in Asia. India, meanwhile, would welcome greater economic and strategic involvement with other like-minded extra-regional powers, as this would strengthen its efforts to enhance stability in its Indian Ocean and across its Indo-Pacific neighbourhood.
France has maintained a presence in the Indo-Pacific region and even more so across the Indian Ocean, with bases in Abu Dhabi, Djibouti and Reunion. This effort is certainly not intended, as some suggest, to ‘contain’ China, but to ensure that countries have more than just one choice for developing their progress and prosperity.
Rarely has a visiting dignitary received such positive media coverage during a visit to India as that accorded to President Emmanuel Macron. Setting aside formal protocol, Prime Minister Modi personally welcomed Macron and his wife at the airport on their arrival in Delhi, and there was another personal reception for them by the PM in the holy city of Varanasi (Benares), which is Mr Modi’s parliamentary constituency. Following official meetings and business exchanges between the two sides, India and France have agreed to move forward in developing a 10,000-MW nuclear power project in Jaitapur. This project includes substantial transfer of technology.
Business cooperation is also set to expand significantly. There are over 1000 French companies in India, employing an estimated 300,000 people. Likewise, there are an estimated 120 Indian companies with an estimated 7000 employees in France. Cooperation in outer space is also to be expanded: France has contributed significantly to placing Indian satellites in geosynchronous orbit.
The talks and meetings that Macron had in Delhi have set the momentum for expanding cooperation appreciably in a number of areas, ranging from defence and security to nuclear energy and aerospace. Progress was made in the deal for India to acquire 36 Rafale fighter aircraft from France, and the production of six Scorpene submarines in Indian shipyards is moving ahead. There is now scope for France to expand these projects and participate in India’s efforts for indigenous production of light combat aircraft and other weapons systems. Enhanced defence cooperation with France will also involve joint exercises, maritime intelligence exchanges and provision of logistical support and reciprocal access to ports and other operational facilities in the Indian Ocean region. Thus, while India deals primarily with the US Pacific Fleet across its eastern shores, French facilities now available in Dubai and elsewhere provide New Delhi with access to ports in its western neighbourhood, where over 7 million Indians reside and from where 75 per cent of India’s oil imports emanate.
Given the mutual understanding that has grown between France and India on issues of environmental protection, both countries have decided to not only enhance the generation of solar energy, but also to promote its use worldwide. Mr Modi and President Macron co-chaired a Summit meeting in New Delhi of the International Solar Alliance. India was designated at the Paris Conference to chair this Solar Alliance, and 23 Heads of State and Government from across the world attended the meeting. India has agreed to provide a $1.4 billion credit line to finance solar energy institutions and projects, most notably in Africa, to promote enhanced production of solar energy. India has also agreed to provide 500 training slots for members of the International Solar Alliance to start a solar technology mission for promoting Research and Development. France agreed to provide an additional 500 million euros by 2022, in support of the International Solar Mission.
President Macron’s visit received an unprecedented welcome across India, because it met the shared interests of both countries in building amore democratised, multi-polar world order. It would only be in the fitness of things if Germany were to join this effort and the UK is able to move smoothly towards assuming a post-Brexit role, embracing these shared objectives, particularly across the Indo-Pacific region.