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France has offered to arm India’s new aircraft carrier with Rafale jets as it looks to ramp up ties with its South Asian ally after Australia’s rejection of a submarine deal and nagging worries over China’s influence in the high seas.
Bilateral visits in recent weeks which also backed India’s pitch to indigenise military production also refreshed France’s interest in the world’s second largest arms importer.
“India and China are huge markets but since Beijing does not buy, India becomes vital to France,” said Anil Chopra, director-general of India's Centre for Air Power Studies military think tank.
“So France wants to win our hearts, our politicians and our military to be able to sell their jets and their equipment to us because ultimately the Indian air force cannot just have 36 Rafales,” Chopra told RFI.
The Rafale market
France has delivered 33 of the 36 Rafales as part of a 2016 deal worth seven billion Euros and its Defence Minister Florence Parly in a recent visit hoped to sell more to outfit India’s new aircraft carrier undergoing sea trials.
“We know that the aircraft carrier will soon be (there),” Parly said during her second visit in 15 months while India separately announced plans for the joint military production of French aircraft engines.
India in 2007 planned to buy 126 fighter jets but it was scaled down to 36 planes and France was chosen as the supplier.
Analyst Chopra argued India needed at least 36 additional Rafale jets to counter border threats from uneasy neighbours China and Pakistan.
The AUKUS factor
The developments came weeks after France was pushed out of a 58-billion-euro nuclear submarine deal with Australia when Canberra joined Britain and the US in an alliance known by its acronym AUKUS.
France said it would ramp up ties with India and Japan after the Australian fiasco in September.
“When you lose a friend, your friendship with your other friends becomes stronger," Christophe Penot, the French ambassador to the Indo-Pacific, was quoted as saying.
Others saw India’s slipping dependence on long-time weapons supplier Russia as another cause for France to rejoice.
Russia’s arms exports to India during 2015-2019 fell 16 percent to 56 percent while French deliveries rose by a staggering 715 percent in the same period.
But Anil Golani, a retired air vice marshal, argued India was keen on “strategic autonomy”, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s trip to Delhi 10 days before Parly’s December 17 visit.
“The old partnership continues and at the same time India as a sovereign nation wants to keep its options open without antagonising Russia while also building a strong partnership with other nations,” Golani told RFI.
The prominent analyst added growing Chinese influence was the second factor bringing France and India closer.
“The major powers are worried how to contain that threat,” Golani added.
Indian diplomat Deepak Vohra believed Parly’s trip which followed a visit to Paris by her Indian counterpart Rajnath Singh reflected growing reliance of France in India in the neighborhood seas.
“The important thing is that one of the world’s important military powers... which is France which also has a huge footprint in the Indian Ocean and in the Pacific that now looks to India to counter China,” Vohra told local TV.
Emmanuel Lenain, French ambassador in Delhi, mirrored Vohra’s sentiments.
“The relation is better. What could be better I don’t know,” Lenain said as the two countries pledged to bolster maritime security.
France has emerged as the seventh largest foreign investor in India. More than 1,000 French companies are active in the country while 150 Indian firms now operate in France.
France was among the first to forge post Cold War strategic partnership with India and later backed Delhi after it tested nuclear weapons in 1998.