India, France Strategic Partnership: Nuclear and Maritime Cooperation
Among the several congratulatory letters received by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on his reelection, the message from the French President Nicolas Sarkozy merits attention. While inviting Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to be the Chief Guest at the forthcoming ceremonies marking the National Day of France on July 14, Sarkozy has praised the Indian democratic system and alluded ‘ to the values of liberty, people's sovereignty and respect of diversity in secularism'. He has also underscored the necessity to expand the existing strategic partnership between the two countries and has ‘chosen to make India a privileged partner of France’ and also undertake ‘major orientation of the [French] foreign policy. This provides a great opportunity for both Paris and New Delhi to take their relationship to new heights in the 21st century.
In recent times, France has been in the forefront to support India in a number of ways. Paris has backed New Delhi’s bid for a permanent seat in an expanded U.N. Security Council. On May 22, 2009 France's Deputy Ambassador Jean-Pierre Lacroix told a committee negotiating the reform of the current 15-nation council that France was supportive of Germany, Japan, India and Brazil as new permanent members on the council. Earlier in 2008, President Sarkozy, during his visit to New Delhi, had noted that India should get ‘its rightful place at the global high table’. He assured that Paris would do its utmost and support India not only for a U.N. Security Council seat but also for inclusion in an expanded G-8.
Indo-French ties reached a new height in early 2008 when Paris announced that it was willing to sign a bilateral civil nuclear cooperation agreement with India. Interestingly, France is the first country among the Nuclear Suppliers Group to sign an agreement to help India build new civil nuclear plants to overcome its energy deficit. The French initiative is being likened to the days when Homi Bhabha had developed professional relations with the French nuclear scientist Joliot-Curie. Significantly, in 1998, the French leadership had conveyed to India that “India can count on France to help face some of the greatest challenges that your country is confronted with in its development[...] The cooperation could also focus, when the time comes, on the production of nuclear power.”
In the military domain, the Indo-French High Committee for Defence Cooperation was set up in 1998 that is jointly presided by the special representative of the French Ministry of Defence and the Indian Defence Secretary. The Committee comprises of three sub-groups that discuss issues on military cooperation, military industrial complex and strategic issues.
The Indo-French naval cooperation is part of the broader Indo-French strategic partnership that is based on understanding and appreciation of each other's security interests, priorities and aspirations. Significantly, both India and France are Indian Ocean powers and important stakeholders that have interest in maintaining safety and security of maritime enterprise in the Indian Ocean. The two sides have consolidated the bilateral naval cooperation to include ship visits, joint naval exercises and exchanges of naval delegations and trainees in defense institutions. French military hardware too is finding a significant place in India’s military and among these the flagship project involves six Scorpene submarines being built by the French state-owned shipbuilding company Direction des Constructions Navales (DCN) at the Indian state-owned Mazagon Dock Ltd., Mumbai.
Naval ships from both sides have visited each other's ports on a regular basis and in June 2009, four Indian naval ships will be calling at Brest, the French nuclear submarine base. During the visit, the two sides will engage in the Varuna series of exercises that would focus on anti-submarine warfare and it is reported that the French Navy will field a nuclear submarine for the exercises. In May 2002, as part of the Varuna series, the French nuclear aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, Super Etendard and Rafale M fighter aircraft and Indian Sea Harriers were involved in joint exercises.
According to Vice Admiral Gerard Valin, Flag Officer Commanding Joint French Forces in the Indian Ocean, India’s need to acquire a nuclear-propelled submarine is legitimate and is a ‘matter of pride’. India is planning to lease a Russian SSN and the indigenous nuclear submarine programme, designated as an Advance Technology Vessels (ATV) could begin sea trials in 2010. Here the French experience in operating nuclear submarines becomes critical. The French Navy has rich experience in operating nuclear submarines and as far as the Indian navy is concerned, it has operated (1988-91) the leased Soviet/Russian Charlie class Chakra submarine. The two sides have an opportunity to share best business practices in operating nuclear underwater platforms and further strengthen their relationship.