February 2024

Toasting France

As India seeks to broaden defence ties beyond key supplier Moscow, Amit Agnihotri, considers how French President Macron’s January visit to New Delhi could foster new deals

India is looking at expanding its defence procurement basket beyond major supplier Russia, and the January 26 visit to New Delhi by French President Emmanuel Macron, who will be chief guest at the Republic Day parade, is further expected to boost the two countries’defence partnership.

Although US President Joe Biden was India’s first choice to grace the prestigious Republic Day celebrations, the veteran politician declined the invitation due to pressing domestic issues and his involvement with the worst-ever Israel-Hamas conflict in Gaza. This paved the way for Emmanuel Macron, who readily accepted when New Delhi called Paris.

Macron, who was in India on September 9 and 10 last year to attend the G20 Summit, has good reasons to return to New Delhi just four months later.

All eyes are now on India’s negotiations with France to co-develop a high-thrust engine for its stealth fighter jet programme, the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA).Over the past years, India’s DRDO and France’s SAFRAN have been discussing the deal. Indeed, India and France have shared strategic objectives for decades.

After the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union ended in 1991, France was one of the first countries with which India signed a strategic partnership in 1998. That same year, France was one of the few nations to support India’s second nuclear tests, when New Delhi came under heavy international diplomatic pressure for this bold act.

Pic of French President Emmanel Macron
French President Emmanel Macron will be Guest of Honour at India’s Jan. 26 Republic Day parade

The ties between the two countries have long been friendly and there has been significant progress through regular high-level political exchanges. In 2023, they celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Indian-French strategic partnership and Prime Minister Narendra Modi was Guest of Honour at the Bastille Day Parade in Paris on July 14 the same year.

Almost 15 years earlier, India’s then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was Guest of Honour at the 2009 Bastille Day Parade, where a 400-strong contingent of Indian armed forces led France’s parade. That was the first time ever that Indian troops participated in a foreign country’s national day event.

From 2004 to 2014, Indian-French ties strengthened further under the leadership of Manmohan Singh and France’s then President Nicholas Sarkozy.

All eyes are now on India’s negotiations with France

In recent years, France has become a key defence partner of India, second only to Russia. India’s highest defence imports between 2017 and 2021 were from Russia (46 percent), followed by France at 27 per centand the US (12 per cent).

The multi-million dollar Rafale deal for 36 fighter jets was signed in 2016 and completed in 2022. In addition, INS Kalvari, the first Scorpene submarine made in India by Mazagon Dock Shipbuilders in collaboration with French shipbuilder the Naval Group, has been commissioned and five more will be built in due course.

In June 2023, Airbus signed a multi-billion dollar deal with Air India for the supply of 250 aircraft. Further, the Tata Group and Airbus will make C-295 transport aircraft for the Indian Air Force, as part of a project in the western state of Gujarat, valued at $2bn.

This has led to expectations that some big-ticket deals might be signed when Macron visits New Delhi.

Besides pushing defence purchases, the two countries also conducted regular joint military exercises in 2023, including the VARUNA Phase 1 (from January 16-20) off the Coast of Goa, and the maiden joint military exercise FRINJEX-23 (from March 7- 8) at Pangode Military Station in Kerala, as well as multilateral naval exercise La Perouse in the Indian Ocean region from March 13 to 14, in which India, France, Japan, Australia and the UStook part. The Indian Air Force also participated for the first time in multilateral exercise ORION from April 13 to May 7, conducted at the French Air and Space Force base at Mont-de-Marsan.

In June 2023, Airbus signed a multi-billion dollar deal with Air India for the supply of 250 aircraft

Moreover, India and France have signed a pact to facilitate reciprocal logistics support between their armed forces, similar to an agreement between India and the US.

A key milestone of the India-France strategic partnership was the 2008 pact between the two countries for the development of peaceful uses of nuclear energy, which led to the largest nuclear power plant in the world having 9.6 GW capacity at Jaitapur, Maharashtra. Since then, France has been offering its strong and active support over India’s membership of the prestigious Nuclear Suppliers Group.

This has also led to the two countries holding common ground over sensitive areas such as non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and France welcomed India’s accession to the Missile Technology Control Regime in 2016.

India and France also share a joint vision for space cooperation, under which several projects have been initiated, including weather satellites.

Manmohan Singh (left) and Nicholas Sarkozy
STRENGTHENING TIES: The India-France partnership bloomed under the leadership of Manmohan Singh (l) and Nicholas Sarkozy

Alongside bilateral cooperation, India and France have a high degree of convergence over a range of global issues, including securing the Indo-Pacific region, the Korean Peninsula and the Indian Ocean region from Chinese expansionism.

India and France have shared views over much-needed reform of the United Nations-based international system over the past years and Paris consistently supported New Delhi’s candidature as a permanent member of the UN Security Council.

France is an important member of influential global groups including the G7, the OECD and the G20 and has therefore been pushing bilateral trade with SouthAsian major India which has remained steady at between $11-13 billion since 2018.

To help us understand the New Delhi-Paris binary, it is helpful to take a quick look at the India-Russia defence partnership.

India depends on Russia for around 50 percent of its military supplies and has, over the past decades, bought fighter jets, tanks, nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers from Moscow.

India-Russia cooperation in the military-technology sphere has evolved from a purely buyer-seller relationship to joint research, design development and production of state-of-the -art military platforms like the Brahmos missiles.

Under another joint venture, AK-203 rifles are being made in India. Other joint projects include T-90 tanks, Su-30-MKI aircraft, supply of MiG 29-K aircraft and Kamov-31 and upgrade of MiG-29 aircraft.

However, the fallout of the Ukraine war, which broke out in February 2022, impacted the supply of crucial spare parts needed for the maintenance of tanks and fighter jets and also delayed the delivery of Russian air defence systems.

But more than that, it is the pursuit of strategic independence that has pushed India to look beyond Moscow and explore new defence partners in Europe.

Amit Agnihotri is a Delhi-based journalist who has worked with several national newspapers and focuses on politics and policy issues