As Europe weathers a recession, major players on the continent are looking towards India to boost their sagging economies. Despite its own economic slowdown, the subcontinent’s rising economic profile and rapidly expanding infrastructure prompted newly elected French President Francois Hollande to visit New Delhi on Valentine's Day, his first official trip to Asia since assuming office.
During the two-day visit, Hollande and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh concluded negotiations on a Short Range Surface-to-Air Missile deal worth nearly U.S. $6 billion. Despite expectations, however, the two leaders did not ink the much talked-about $12 billion deal for India to buy Rafale fighter jets from France, despite a year of negotiation.
In a joint press conference in New Delhi after the talks, Singh said, "Discussions on the…contract are progressing well. We have also concluded negotiations on the Short Range Surface to Air Missile, which, once approved by the Government, will be co-developed and co-produced in India."
This joint project is a significant step for India and France, and gives a new impetus to the strategic partnership agreement signed between the two countries in 1998.
The joint statement issued after the meeting says the countries will strengthen ties in the fields of defence, space, energy, climate change, security, counter terrorism and in the fight against the trafficking of illegal drugs.
In the energy sector, France has been at the forefront of efforts to help India develop civil nuclear technology. It was the first country to sign a civil nuclear agreement with New Delhi in 2008. India and France signed a memorandum of understanding in 2009 through which six nuclear reactor units would be established at Jaitapur in the western Indian state of Maharashtra.
France is helping India construct two nuclear power reactors at the proposed 9,900 MW Jaitapur Nuclear Power Project in Ratnagiri, 400 km south of Mumbai. Locals, NGOs and anti-nuclear groups and some political parties have fiercely resisted the project.
In an effort to allay concerns about the safety of the nuclear plant, the joint statement stresses that the Jaitapur units “would incorporate the highest safety standards”. Experts believe that deepening economic and defense engagement between the two countries will add a new strategic dimension to the India-France relationship.
In an article titled When Europe’s Leaders Come Calling, Harsh V. Pant, a lecturer in the Department of Defence Studies at King’s College London, writes: “French support will be crucial as India seeks entry into the global export control regime and Paris has underscored its unequivocal commitment to supporting India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the Wassenaar Arrangement, the Australia Group, and the Missile Technology Control Regime.”
Others argue that New Delhi and Paris should assert their joint presence in the Indian Ocean region to neutralize China’s growing dominance.
In an opinion piece published in the Indian Express, C Raja Mohan argues: “As the geopolitical weight of the Indian Ocean grows, Delhi and Paris need to integrate different strands of current bilateral cooperation in the maritime domain. Given the deepening political comfort between Delhi and Paris, Manmohan Singh and Hollande must declare that deepening maritime collaboration is a shared strategic objective and order their defence establishments to begin operational military cooperation in the Indian Ocean.”
Meanwhile, British Prime Minister David Cameron arrived in New Delhi today to engage India on a three-day visit that is expected to highlight trade. Cameron’s current trip, his second since 2010, is expected to add momentum to the strategic partnership agreement signed by the two nations in 2005.
Only time will tell how these partnerships evolve, but visits by two European leaders in quick succession clearly demonstrate the growing importance of Indo-European ties.