Saturday, 26 January 2008

France eyes the Russia vacuum

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard: 25th January 2008

Leading up to Nikolas Sarkozy’s arrival in New Delhi on Friday morning, the spotlight has not played kindly over the Indo-French relationship. Popular interest has focused more keenly on the presidential girlfriend, Carla Bruni, than on Sarkozy himself or what he stands for. Then there was the collapse last month of a prospective $550 million helicopter purchase from Eurocopter, a deal which Sarkozy hoped to initial during his visit. Just days later, an Indian court ordered the CBI to get on with probing alleged corruption in India’s $3 billion purchase of six Franco-Spanish Scorpene submarines.

These, however, are mere ripples on the surface of a deepening Indo-French relationship. Of all western powers, France has historically been the most understanding of India’s aspirations and ambitions. That trend has strengthened over the last decade; just four months after India’s nuclear tests in May 1998, French President Jacques Chirac received Atal Behari Vajpayee in Paris in September 1998. The Indian establishment remembers such gestures.

From the viewpoint of Paris, though, New Delhi presents a huge commercial opportunity, with Russia’s stranglehold over arms supply clearly loosening. New Delhi is frustrated over Moscow’s new commercial approach to arms supplies, delays in meeting contracts, and inadequate spare parts supply and after-sales support. France senses the opportunity to fill that void. 

With the United States struggling to understand the rules of business in Indian defence procurement, France, along with Israel, could well be a major gainer. New Delhi’s decision to buy six Scorpene submarines represents a major shift from India’s traditional reliance on Russian submarine technology. Indian defence shipyards are looking for an international partner for a design consultancy and modular shipbuilding, and French shipyard, DCNS, is actively pursuing that contract.

French aviation major, Dassault, also fancies the chances of its new fighter aircraft, the Rafael, to win the $11 million contract to supply 126 fighters to the Indian Air Force (IAF). Dassault has a comfortable relationship with the IAF, which has flown Dassault’s Mirage 2000 aircraft for over two decades. The French company is also pursuing the sale to India of second-hand Mirage 2000 fighters from the Qatari Air Force. There are reports that the French are also offering used Mirage 2000s from their own air force as the Rafael is inducted.

The Indo-French defence relationship draws its real strength from smaller, more crucial, partnerships. India’s most successful aviation product, the Advanced Light Helicopter (known as Dhruv) flies with a French engine from Snecma. Now Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and Snecma have jointly developed a newer, more powerful engine, called the Shakti, which will be manufactured for all Dhruv helicopters in Bangalore. HAL’s Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), which has made little headway so far in developing its Kaveri engine, will now do so in consultancy with Snecma (and Russian engine-maker NPO Saturn). French electronics and avionics makers like Thales and Sagem provide crucial avionics, night vision and gun control equipment for Indian equipment, from fighter aircraft to the Arjun tank.

As the French defence industry has pursued arms sales to China and Pakistan, New Delhi has conveyed its concerns to France. India also protested, during Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to France in September 2006, about French reluctance to part with cutting edge technology relating to ring laser gyros and other avionics equipment.

Concerns such as these are exchanged through a dialogue structure that has been institutionalised between New Delhi and Paris. The two defence secretaries meet annually in a High Level Committee for Defence, while the two National Security Advisors meet every six months in a “High Level Strategic Dialogue”, exploring common ground on the global security situation. The 17th Round of this dialogue took place in New Delhi on 30th July 2007. In addition, there is a Joint Working Group on Terrorism.

Security cooperation between India and France is also complemented by decades of close cooperation in the field of space. French scientists were involved in the launch of India’s first sounding rockets from Thumba. Under a continuing agreement with the French Space Agency (CNES), Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) space scientists were frequent visitors to CNES facilities, gaining experience and expertise for developing India’s early rockets. The European Space Agency’s Ariane rocket, launched India’s experimental communications satellite, APPLE, free of charge. A Joint Working Group (JWG) between ISRO and CNES meets every six months.

In the circumstances, Nikolas Sarkozy is assured of a warm welcome in New Delhi. At the Republic Day Parade, the French president may find that a disconcertingly high proportion of the military equipment that rolls past him bears the Russian stamp. But all that is changing and the delegation travelling with Sarkozy will do what it can to mould that change in France’s favour.

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