India-France defence relations are like premium French wine. They get better with time. The metaphor of wine, often used by French diplomats to talk lightly about tricky issues, conjures up a feeling of optimism in France’s political-defence establishment about the prospects of the $15 billion mammoth contract for supplying 126 Rafale combat aircraft to India.
The headline-hogging deal, under which India would be buying 126 medium-range, multi- role combat aircrafts (MMRCA) for the Indian Air Force, has been embroiled in delays after the French company Dassault won the prized contract in January 2012 in the face of fierce competition from its rivals in the US and the eurozone. The speculation game is on as to the reasons behind the perceived delay in signing of the contract. Reliable sources said the so-called delay is the creation of the media as there are no timelines and deadlines to the project of such a magnitude. The French authorities, on their part, are confident that the project is on track and like to believe that mega contracts, like good wine, take time to mature.
A Picture of Confidence
France’s Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has exuded optimism on the much-publicised mega deal. “Of course, the MMRCA project is the priority. At the risk of disappointing you, I won’t be announcing the date of signing the contract,” he said during a lecture on Indo-French Defence Partnership at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) in New Delhi July 26. “I would like you to know the negotiations are going on well and I have full confidence. There would be a framework Indo-French intergovernmental Agreement for this contract, which would provide all the necessary guarantees of the French State,” he stressed.
The Rafale contract was among a gamut of issues discussed between the defence ministers of India and France in New Delhi July 26. India’s Defence Minister A.K. Antony and his French counterpart spent around 90 minutes discussing a host of steps to deepen India-France defence cooperation and regional issues like the security situation in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region after the withdrawal of foreign combat forces from there in 2014.
A joint statement issued at the end of the talks affirmed that defence relations remain the pillar of the larger India-France strategic partnership and unveiled a slew of joint exercises in the coming months. The ministers welcomed the upcoming bilateral exercise ‘Shakti’ in September in France between both Armies. This will be followed by joint naval exercise Varuna off the coast of India and the Air Force exercise ‘Garuda’ during the first half of 2014.
“The ministers had detailed discussions regarding current and future cooperation in the areas of defence equipment and technology collaboration. They agreed such cooperation should continue to the mutual benefit of both countries, including in high technology areas involving joint research and development and transfer of technology,” said the statement.
Behind the Deal
France may be predictably trying to downplay perceived delays in the signing of the Rafale deal, saying complex negotiations on such high value projects takes time, but apparently there is a lot going on behind the scenes and some issues need to be resolved urgently. Many factors have contributed to it: besides the sticky price negotiations, the kickbacks controversy connected to another defence deal concerning the purchase of Augusta-Westland choppers has made the Indian establishment tread cautiously on it. With elections barely a year away, India’s political establishment is also circumspect and moving slowly to avoid any unsavoury controversy that may give ammunition to the opposition regardless of the merits of the case.
The signing of the India deal is, however, critical to fortunes of Dassault in the wake of the declining French defence budget, as highlighted in France’s latest ‘White Paper on Defence and National Security.’ Against this backdrop, the French defence minister assured in New Delhi that India would “not regret” selecting the Rafale jets which have proved their prowess in Afghanistan, Libya and Mali. Recently, the minister told a French newspaper the first batch of Rafale would be delivered to India by 2016-2017.
In his lecture at the IDSA, Le Drian glowingly described the Rafale as “a splendid omnirole aircraft” and underlined France’s commitment to the transfer of cutting-edge technology and co-development of high-end military hardware, which has come to form a hallmark of the blossoming Indo-French defence partnership. “France guarantees the transfer of technology. The aircraft will be given all the upgrades that technological progress will permit over the course of years,” he said.
White Paper: India’s special place
Alluding to the French White paper on defence and security which he discussed with India’s defence establishment, the French minister underlined that India has a special place in France’s defence-strategic calculus. “This place is important because we consider that, apart from our closest Western and European allies, there is no other country that is mentioned in the same terms in various contexts.” “The White Paper highlights India’s economic emergence, and the privileged bilateral relation, enshrined in the strategic partnership established in 1998, which enables us to cooperate in areas that involve the major interests of the two countries.”
Underscoring strategic autonomy as the core of the defence policies and diplomacies of the two countries, Le Drian said: “It is obvious to me that our defence relation must bolster it.” “I would like to make a wish: in a few years, thanks to the all the cooperation being initiated today, France and India will feel stronger, safer, closer to each other, having together strengthened their strategic autonomy. We could then be proud of the work accomplished.”
- Manish Chand is Founder-CEO and Editor-in-Chief of India Writes Network (www.indiawrites.org) and India and World, a pioneering magazine focused on international affairs. He is CEO/Director of TGII Media Private Limited, an India-based media, publishing, research and consultancy company.
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