Follow @southasiaanalys



Paper No. 127                                   

by Dr. Subhash Kapila

South Asia figured as a low priority area in French foreign policy formulations in the last fifty years.  This was in common with the policy attitudes of the rest of the Western world.  French interest was focussed in terms of arms supplies contracts to both India and Pakistan.  In the economic field, other than telecommunications and electronics, French firms did not exhibit much interest or find the investment climate in India attractive.

As opposed to South Asia, France did focus politically, strategically and economically in the contiguous regions of the Middle East and South East Asia.  However, the trend in the last two years indicates a marked shift in emphasis in French policies in South Asia.

But first a glance at the pattern that existed hitherto fore that is the French interest in terms of arms supplies to South Asia.

South Asia – French connection in terms of arms supplies

France faced stiff competition in terms of arms supplies to South Asia. India as the major military power relied heavily on Soviet/Russian arms supplies both due to political and economic reasons.  The other contending military power, i.e. Pakistan till about 1965 relied heavily on United States military largesse and thereafter Chinese military munificence including nuclear weaponisation and missiles.

The pattern of French major arms and equipment supplies to South Asia in the context of the above was as indicated below:


AMX Light tanks
Anti-tank guided missiles
Combat Aircraft (MIRAGE 2000)
Alfa Jet Trainer Aircraft (France is advancing the sale)


             Anti tank guided missiles
             Combat aircraft (MIRAGE III and MIRAGE 2000)
             Exocet missiles
             Mine hunters for Pak Navy
             Maritime Surveillance Aircraft

In terms of volume of French arms supplies in recent years, the balance tilted towards Pakistan and specifically the Pak Navy in terms of capital equipment supply. However, to the credit of France it must be said that in the mid 1960’s when arms embargo was applied following the 1965 Indo-Pak War, France did supply critical spare parts for French combat equipment in the Indian Armed Forces.

The growing French political and strategic interest in India – The emerging pattern

In the past lack of focus or interest of France in South Asia and in India as the predominant actor may have been conditioned by Western attitudes of mistrust of the lofty moral posturing in Nehruvian foreign policies and the Indian selective non-alignment policies. Also the lack of pragmatic foreign policies during the Nehru years may have been a contributory reason when the then Indian Prime Minister was a blind supporter of all Chinese policies. France at that time was combating the Chinese supported and inspired communist take over of the French colonies in Indo-China i.e. Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. This must be viewed in the context of the Cold War era political fixations. Yet again to the credit of France, it gave up its colonial possessions in India all about the same time voluntarily.

From 1998, France has evinced a growing political and strategic interest in India as the following events would indicate and quoted by the French Foreign Minister at the concluding session of the Seminar on "India and France in a Multipolar World" on February 17, 2000.1

- January 1998  -  State visit of French President to India.

- January 1999 - Visit of Indian Defence Minister George Fernandes to                              France.

-  May 1999  - Visit of Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh to France.

-   Sept 1999 -  Visit of Indian Prime Minister A. B.Vajpayee to France.

-  Feb 2000    -  Visit of French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine to Indian.

-  April 2000  -  Visit of French Defence Chief of Staff General Jean Pierre                             Kelch to India.

-  April 2000 -   State visit by Indian President to France.

-  May 2000 -  Visit of French Foreign Minister Alain Richard to India.

In addition to the above visits other France – Indian exchanges that have taken place are:

- Four meetings of the Franco – Indian Initiative Forum. The latest was held in Feb 2000.

- Two visits to India by French Minister of Education, Research and Technology in India.

- Four sessions of the strategic dialogue between France and India, the most recent in Feb 2000.

- Visit by Indian National Security Adviser to France.

In addition in May 2000, joint exercises between the French and Indian Navies took place in the Arabian Sea.

The emerging pattern indicates a significant expansion of political and strategic interest between France and India. 

French Foreign Minister – salient views

Mr. Hubert Vedrine the French Foreign Minister expressed the following views:2

* The uniploar configuration which has been in existence after the end of the Cold War needs to be changed into a multi polar configuration. France considers USA as a durable friend and considers unipolarity not even in USA’s interest.

* A multipolar word would consist of other poles besides USA – Europe, Russia, China and India, possibly Brazil.

Multipolarity is a geo-political line of thought and would reinforce stability and cooperation, globally

* Multipolarity would necessarily have to be cooperative amongst the poles and not confrontationist.

* France has embarked on an advance dialogue with the emerging poles – an ongoing and wide ranging dialogue with the United States, their friend and ally but with which France is not aligned; development of relations with a modernising Russia to establish a long term Euro-Russian partnership; a global partnership with China; a far reaching strategic dialogue with India, a deepening of dialogue with Japan; deepening of the dialogue with Brazil, South Africa and other States.

* The UN Security Council needs to be restructured and India should be made a Permanent Member.

* While India has emerged as a de-facto nuclear power, it has to show compliance with the non-proliferation regime.

* "Furthermore, in this part of the world; in the vastness of Asia, where many things are in a state of flux, there are many tensions and uncertainties that remain, it is important that large States contribute to stability".

* "It was a historical abnormality that there were no strong relations between India and France" and "We are catching up with the times. The dialogue we have established between our two countries over the last two years will be very valuable both at the bilateral and global levels".

An analysis of the above views makes the following conclusions emerge:

- France has given emphasis to build purposeful relations with India in the last two years.

- France recognises that India will emerge as an important regional and global player or ‘pole’ as the French would like to term it in the multi-polar sense.

- France supports India’s candidature for permanent membership of the Security Council.

- Implicit in the views of the French Foreign Minister are the considerations that in South Asia, France recognises India’s pre-eminence and its role for stability and promotion of democracy.

French Defence Minister- views

During his visit to India in May 2000, the French Defence Minister articulated views on Franco-Indian Cooperation at various fora. Some points of interest are:

* France is keen "to forge an alliance at difference levels of military-industrial cooperation and to share technology and expertise" with India.

* France is particularly interested in defence R & D Projects with India.

* India-France defence ties today are not limited to weapon sales only. It extends to a strategic dialogue incorporating comprehensive security issues.3

Significantly and which is notable was the French Defence Ministers views on French arms sales to Pakistan, and which indicates a shift;

* Paris was not inclined to sell military aircraft to Pakistan.

* "The current Government in France has taken a very careful and conscious decision not to supply military hardware to Pakistan or propose joint ventures with her. However, the military contracts signed during the previous government will stay in place".4

An analysis of the above would indicate that:

- France wishes to enlarge defence cooperation with India.

- France-India defence cooperation would be enlarged to strategic dialogue on comprehensive security issue.

- France wants to be co-opted in India’s defence production projects.

- In South Asia, France has made a strategic choice to be with India.

French Defence Chief of Staff’s visit – statements

French Defence Chief of Staff, General Jean Pierre Kelch made the following statements:

* India and France have agreed to hold regular institutional defence dialogues for evolution of common security perspectives and military doctrines.

* India and France have agreed to explore joint participation in international crisis management.5

Franco – Indian political & strategic cooperation – The imperatives

The French Foreign Minister Mr. Hubert Vedrine made an important point, in terms of time frame in which the shift of policy emphasis in South Asia has taken place. He placed the shift in the period 1998 – 2000. An analysis of India – related events would indicate the following:

- India’s nuclear weaponisation i.e. Pokharan II.

- India’s draft Nuclear Doctrine, which in essence was a declaratory policy.

- India’s response to Pakistan’s mis-adventure in Kargil.

- Political changes in the complexion of the Govt. in power in New Delhi where after 50 years of independence India displayed the first signs of strategic assertiveness and a willingness to acquire national power and military power and not be apologetic about it.

- India’s economic liberalisation and its willingness for integration into the global economy.

- Above all, the readiness to shed the ambiguities of the non-alignment era and willingness to enter into strategic dialogues with those so interested with India.

In brief, France has noticed early in 1998 India’s potential for being both a regional and global power and this recognition prompted the unfolding of its imperatives for building up a comprehensive political and strategic relationship with India.

India cannot be smug about the growing recognition it has been getting, especially strategic. India too has imperatives, which should impel it to reciprocate the French interest. These are:

- France, along with Germany is a key player in the formulation of European Union’s policies and strategies.

- Comprehensive strategic cooperation with France would ensure that India’s points of views are correctly appreciated and understood in Europe.

- France is the leader of the Franco-phile world extending from France, across Africa and upto Vietnam.

- Convergence of French and Indian strategic perceptions regarding the Indian Ocean.

- French armament industry, especially aircraft and naval ships is well advanced. Transfer of technologies could be an attractive avenue for India’s DRDO.

- French expertise in nuclear power generation plants particularly in light water reactors is appreciable. Scope exists for cooperation.

- French expertise in nuclear deterrence with limited nuclear weapon, nuclear weapons control mechanisms and integrated national security management could be of use to India.

France – India: Potential area for defence industrial cooperation

France has state of the art defence production capabilities. Indian defence upgradation plans would call for sizeable acquisition of military hardware in the next 25 years. As per foreign estimates this could incorporate:

Combat aircraft - 300
Main Battle Tanks - 1000
Warships           - 40
Submarine        - 15
Combat Helicopters - 500
Artillery S. P. Guns - 2000 6

France would decidedly be interested to participate in such projects by direct sales, technology transfers or joint production. It could also make India a production base for sales in Asia – Pacific.

The immediate defence industrial cooperation could be in:

Avionics for Indian Air Force
Surveillance systems for all three services
Licensed production of radars
Naval weaponry 7

Conclusion -

France has undertaken a shift in policy emphasis in South Asia, lately. From a limited interest of carving a niche in the arms sales market of South Asia, namely with India and Pakistan, it has made a conscious decision to build a comprehensive political and strategic cooperative relationship with India.

French strategic interest in India has been kindled from 1998 when the new government in power initiated events, strategically assertive in nature, in marked contrast to ambiguities and moral posturing of earlier eras. It was easier for France to read India’s intentions and aspirations and assess its potential.

France now finds convergence of strategic interests with India in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region. Both countries can build on this. Franco – Indian defence cooperation would be mutually beneficial.

France, right from De Gaulle’s days, has demonstrated an independence of thought and decision making both in politics and strategic affairs while being an important player in the Western world. Franco – Indian strategic cooperation would thus be devoid of pressures from other quarters.8

In the overall analysis what emerges is that France like other countries is recognising the power potential of India. India not only offers incentives of an arms market, defence R & D and defence production but more importantly it offers the potential of a regional stabiliser, a force for political stability and democratic norms. It is this which has prompted France to declare its strategic choices in South Asia clearly i.e. it is India that counts. Further that it will not strategically destabilise the South Asian security environment by arms sales to Pakistan. India should welcome such developments as they arise not from a recognition of India’s erstwhile non-alignment but the strategically assertive policies followed since 1998 and Indian trends now not to shy away from strategic relationships.



Post Script

A three day meeting of the Indo-French High Committee on Defence Cooperation was held at Paris in the first week of July, 2000.

India was represented by a high level delegation comprising :

Mr. T.R. Prasad, Defence Secretary
Lt.Gen.Chandrasekhar, Vice Chief of Army Staff
Air Marshal P.S.Brar Vice Chief of Air Staff
Vice Admiral P J Jacob, Naval HQs

The French side was headed by Mr. Jean Bernand Ouvrieu, Special Emissary of French Defence Minister, Alain Richard and included equally senior uniform and other officials.

Besides a review of the global strategic environment, reports indicate the following defence deals were discussed:

*  Purchase of 10 Mirage 2000-H fighters for Indian Air Force.

*  Possibility of joint production of Mirage 2000-5 fighter plane in India as per earlier offer made by French Defence Minister during his visit to India in May 2001.

*  Avionics for Indian Air Force for its Mirage fighter aircraft and also for the Russian Sukhoi 30 MK II.

*  Purchase of SM 39 submarine launched Anti-ship missiles for Indian Navy.

France offered the following defence equipment for sale to India.

GIAT self propelled artillery guns 
Scorpene class submarines
Aircraft carrier
ALPHA Jet trainer for the Indian Air Force (Advanced Jet Trainer)

France and India also explored the plans for proposed joint exercises and joint production of weapon systems. 54 major armament systems including attack submarines have been identified for joint production.

It would thus appear that France-India strategic cooperation and defence deals would now gain more momentum when contrasted with British measures of opening up armament sales to Pakistan contrary to its earlier declaration and additionally holding up Indian Naval assets sent for refurbishing to UK under US pressure.



1)  Speech Delivered by Mr. Hubert Vedrine, Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Republic of France at the concluding session of the Seminar on India and France in a Multipolar World on February 17, 2000. Address reproduced in Strategic Digest Volume XXX Numer 3 March 2000, Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, New Delhi PP 275 – 278.

2)  Ibid, Also see C Raja Mohan "We Believe in a Multipolar World – Interview of the French Foreign Minister, THE HINDU February 15, 2000.

3)   See DEFENSE NEWS June 5, 2000 P 4.

4)   Ibid

5)   See ASIA DEFENSE JOURNAL, May 2000 P 50.

6)   See reference at Note 3 above.

7)   Ibid

8)    French Ministry of Defence Information and communications, Director Jean Francois Bureau has in an article entitled "French Interests in the Asia Pacific Region" published in Asia Defence Journal, June 2000 stressed that France can play an important role in helping. Asian nations to achieve strategic autonomy and self reliances in defence production see P 67.