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Opinion

Jet deal shows India-France defense alliance is only strengthening

Both have interests in Indian Ocean region and recent history of cooperation

The first Rafale fighter jet to the Indian Air Force at the factory of Dassault Aviation in Merignac, France on Oct. 8: New Delhi is keen to reduce its reliance on Russian-made weaponry.   © Reuters

The Indian defense minister was in France in early October to take formal delivery of the first of 36 Rafale fighter jets India ordered in a $8.3 billion deal in September 2016. Though the Rafale acquisition process has been mired in controversy back in India, the jet's introduction is critical given the two-pronged threat from Pakistan and China.

The Pakistani-Chinese JF-17 fighter aircraft represents a growing threat to India, and the People's Liberation Army Air Force has gone in for a massive modernization drive at the same time. This is as the number of fighter squadrons of the Indian Air Force has been going down.

But what is especially interesting about the deal is the evolution of an Indian-French defense alliance, which looks set only to strengthen in the near future.

India and France became strategic partners in 1998 and it is important to remember that France was one of the few countries which did not come down heavily on India in the aftermath of its nuclear tests in the same year.

Under President Macron, France has been playing an active role in the international arena and earlier this year it extended a special invitation to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to attend the G-7 Summit in Biarritz, France.

France has shown a renewed interest in the Indo-Pacific region where it has always had a strong presence. For its part, under the Modi administration, New Delhi has embarked on the Act East Policy, of which the Indian Ocean region is a critical part.

Then there is the nuclear arena, where India and France will be cooperating in setting up six nuclear reactors at a 10,000 megawatt nuclear power plant at Jaitapur in Maharashtra. In March last year, France and India signed a logistics sharing agreement which will allow them to use each other's bases in the region.

During his recent visit to France, the Indian defense minister also invited French businesses to collaborate in modernizing India's shipyards and defense platforms and turn India into a production hub for export to third countries. This would gel well with New Delhi's Make in India manufacturing initiative.

India and France have also been holding joint defense exercises which have expanded in scope and complexity over the years.

French and Indian soldiers stand during Indo-French joint army exercise Shakti-2016 in Rajasthan, India in January 2016.   © Reuters

The Indian Navy has a formidable presence in the Indian Ocean region and has been involved in a whole range of activities, in both the traditional and the nontraditional security realms.

On the one hand, it was an important part of the humanitarian assistance and disaster relief activities in the wake of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, while it has also been a part of anti-piracy efforts in the region and was involved in the evacuation of Indian and other citizens from conflict zones like Yemen.

New Delhi has been rapidly increasing its presence in the Andaman and Nicobar islands. It already has a tri-services command, where personnel from all three branches work together under a three-star officer from the navy, in these islands and would now be stationing fighter jets therein. New Delhi is one of the biggest importers of arms in the world and is keen to reduce its reliance on Russian-made weaponry.

France has a big stake in the Indo-Pacific with several island territories which are spread over the Indian and the South Pacific Oceans, and also possesses an extensive exclusive economic zone around these islands.

Speaking earlier this year at the Shangri-La Dialogue, a defense summit, French defense minister Florence Parly noted that "we will continue to sail more than twice a year in the South China Sea. There will be objections, there will be dubious maneuvers at sea. But we will not be intimidated into accepting any fait accompli."

Recently, France and India agreed on a three-layered security cooperation process in the southern Indian Ocean which will see them work toward joint maritime security, a joint maritime surveillance network and the likely deployment of an Indian Navy patrol vessel in the Reunion islands.

There cannot be any doubt that defense collaboration between India and France will continue to increase in the future. The Rafale deal is only a harbinger of things to come.

Rupakjyoti Borah is a Senior Research Fellow with the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies in Tokyo, Japan. The views expressed here are personal.

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