France steps up defence and nuclear cooperation
With multi-billion dollar deals in the last phases of negotiations in defence and nuclear sectors, France made it a point to become the first European country to dispatch its Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius to India on June 30. He discussed under negotiation deals with Defence and Foreign Affairs Ministers of the one-month-old Narendra Modi Government and to impress them with proposed multibillion-dollar investment plans by Airbus besides promising close cooperation with India in various international forums and support to India for membership of the exclusive nuclear club like the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). Fabius also handed over an invitation from the French President Hollande to Prime Minister Modi to visit Paris as soon as possible and even suggested dates as the last week of September or early October when Modi visits the United States. France wants to strengthen its strategic partnership with India on the two very strong pillars of defence and nuclear cooperation and expects a concrete decision from India by the time Modi arrives in Paris.
Hence, the visit of French Foreign Minister Fabius focused principally on these major areas of India-France cooperation. In both these sectors France is eagerly waiting for the green signal from the Modi Government. The defence deals alone would be no less than $25 billion if India goes ahead with the Rafale fighter aircraft, Short-range surface-to-air missile (SRSAM) Maitri and the multi-role tanker transport (MRTT) aircraft Airbus A-330 deal while the under negotiation. Six EPR nuclear reactors in Jaitapur will ensure over $40 billion deal for the French nuclear equipment manufacturers in the coming decade.
The 126 Rafale medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) alone will cost anywhere around $15 to 20 billion. And if the scope of the deal is expanded to include another 66 more aitcraft, Dassault Aviation of France will earn a few billion dollars more. The SRSAM cooperation agreement envisages a contract of $6 billion while the six MRTT Airbus A-330 will cost around $2 billion. When asked about these deals in the offing, Fabius said, “India is an independent country, wants equipment of the highest quality including transfer of technology so that it can produce on Indian soil. The proposal for the Rafale
meets all these legitimate demands. I am confident of the Rafale deal. This deal will have consequences for next 30 years.”
Regarding the MRTT deal, the Airbus Military CEO Domingo Ureña Raso had then reacted over IAF’s wish to acquire them: “We are grateful for the confidence shown in our company by the Government of India and the Indian Air Force and we appreciate the detailed and fair appraisal of the competing products which they have conducted. This has been a long and tough competition and we are honoured to have been selected. We are fully committed to the next stage of the negotiations and ultimately to providing the IAF with what is unquestionably the most advanced tanker/transport aircraft flying and certified today.”
Besides the MMRCA, the over $6 billion negotiation for the SRSAM was concluded during the visit of the President Francois Hollande in February 2013. The then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had commented, “Defence ties were poised to reach a ‘qualitatively’ new level. This SRSAM project once approved by the government will be codeveloped and co-produced in India.” Observers point out that since the deal was agreed between the two sovereign governments, the successor government cannot ignore them, especially when the Indian armed forces need them on an urgent basis.
Regarding the nuclear deal, Indian Prime Minister had then said, “We reviewed progress on the Jaitapur Nuclear Power Project and reiterated our commitment to its early implementation as soon as the commercial and technical negotiations, which have made good progress, are completed,” When asked about the EPR nuclear reactors proposed to be established in Jaitapur and if the French Government had any issue with India’s Nuclear Liability Law, Fabius said, “We have no problem.”
If this is really so, this will help India and weaken the stand taken by other nuclear power countries like the United States, Japan and Canada who have expressed reservations on the Liability Law adopted by the Indian Parliament. However, one French diplomatic source told this writer that the French Areva nuclear power company is confident of the safety aspect of the design of EPR reactors, hence they are not worried about the fears of any accident in the EPR reactor. The French source pointed out that countries like China have expressed confidence on the EPR reactors which are already under execution and likely to become operational by 2016. In India the Areva has entered into a cooperation agreement with NPCIL for setting up six EPR reactors each with 1,650 MW capacity.
However, there are strong concerns in India over the cost of energy production from these reactors. The installation cost of these reactors are said to be the highest among all international nuclear reactors. When asked about the cost-related issues the spokesman of the Indian External Affairs Ministry Sayeed Akbaruddin said, ”The experts of Areva and the NPCIL will work out the techno-commercial issues of these EPR reactors”.
In fact if the proposed defence and nuclear deals between France and India materialise, the two countries will find themselves woven in very strong strings of strategic partnerships for decades, which will also prove to be a windfall gain to French defence and nuclear companies. France has been strong supporter of India in international bodies and had earlier extended moral support to India after India’s Pokhran nuclear explosion in 1998 when India was isolated by the world community led by the United States. France, had been a strong supporter for India’s claim to the permanent membership in UN Security Council and both the countries have close cooperation on many other international issues. These aspects will weigh very heavily in favour of France while taking a decision on the multibillion-dollar defence and nuclear contracts. The UPA Government has taken these defence and nuclear negotiations to such a stage that it will be difficult for the Narendra Modi-Government to back out from the commitments already made.
The French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius calls on the Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi. The Union Minister for External Affairs and
Overseas Indian Affairs Sushma Swaraj is also seen.
The French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius with Defence Minister Arun Jaitley