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International relations

France and India talk submarines as Rafale fighters are delivered

European and South Asian nations share security concerns as China advances

The INS Kalvari is escorted by tugboats off the coast of Mumbai. Having already concluded a deal for six submarines, India is talking to France about purchasing another half dozen.   © Reuters

BHUBANESWAR, India -- India received three more French fighter jets on Wednesday, and a deal for French submarines might not be far behind as the European and South Asian nations find they share a commitment to Indian Ocean security.

The submarines would come from French shipbuilder Naval Group, which "will formulate an offer that goes very far in the Make in India direction," said a source familiar with the company's preparation for the submarine procurement tender under the Indian Navy's P75I category.

The source spoke of talks between French Defense Minister Florence Parly and her Indian counterpart, Rajnath Singh, in September. The meeting, in New Delhi, covered Indo-French defense cooperation and procurement contracts, including "ongoing ones as well as possible future prospects," the source said. "One of these is the P75I submarines tender."

The tender is to build six stealth submarines with air-independent propulsion technology that would have a longer submerged range than subs already being shipped to the Indian Navy.

The deal, expected to be finalized sometime next year, is valued at 420 billion rupees ($5.6 billion), according to Harsh V Pant, chief of the Strategic Studies Programme, Observer Research Foundation.

Naval Group is currently working with India's state-owned Mazagon Dock Shipbuilders to deliver six Kalvari submarines that are valued at a combined 230 billion rupees ($3.13 billion). Two of these have already been launched, two are undergoing sea trials and two are under construction.

The projects include technology transfers from the French company to its Indian partners.

France has been doing more defense business with India during the past five years. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the country was India's eighth largest arms supplier from 2010 to 2014, making $199 million worth of deals. It moved up to No. 3 during the following five years, completing $1.6 billion in deals. Russia and Israel were Nos. 1 and 2.

Pant said France remains committed to India, particularly when it comes to transferring technology. "After the [technology transfers involved with the P75I submarines], it is estimated that the navy's next submarine-building project would be entirely indigenous vis-a-vis its design and technology," he said.

India's military budget allocations show how French arms producers are gaining ground. Usually, about 40% of India's total defense capital outlays go to its air force. This has enabled India to buy 36 Rafale fighters from France's Dassault Aviation, the first five of which were delivered in September. The army and navy typically win 20% to 30% of these outlays, but continuous submarine upgrades could require the Indian government to expand the navy's budget in the coming years.

New Delhi and Paris' cooperation goes beyond arms deals. France also supports India's bid to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. "Paris recognized India's geopolitical relevance much before others in continental Europe," said Gulshan Sachdeva, a professor at the Centre for European Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Mohan Kumar, once India's ambassador to France, said France is probably the only major power with which India has "no serious dispute or difference." The U.S. raises trade disputes with India, Germany is not a Security Council member and the U.K. tries to maintain a balance in its relations with India and Pakistan.

But "France has always stood by India," Kumar said. "At the height of the 1998 nuclear tests, when the entire Western world declared India a pariah, France stood by us."

France has naval bases and territories in the Indian Ocean, which makes New Delhi believe Paris could make for a good strategic partner.   © Reuters

The countries also want to elevate their defense relations above the current seller-buyer dynamic. Toward that end, France and India, as well as Australia, have begun a dialogue to work outside of the Quad -- the Indo-Pacific grouping of the U.S., India, Australia and Japan. At the first official level summit held virtually in September, the trio discussed climate, environment, biodiversity and challenges to multilateralism, Pant said.

France has a naval base in Djibouti, near the northwestern rim of the Indian Ocean, and a territory, Reunion Island, in the same body of water. These holdings make New Delhi believe Paris would make for a good strategic partner as China builds up its naval presence throughout the sea. "Maritime security in the Indo-Pacific region," Sachdeva said, "is likely to emerge as a key area of bilateral engagement in the coming years."

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