Defence, N-energy to be centrepiece of India-France talks

Defence, N-energy to be centrepiece of India-France talks

New Delhi/Bangalore: French President Nicolas Sarkozy kicks off the official leg of his four-day visit to India on Monday, meeting top leaders for talks on boosting ties in high-tech areas including civil nuclear energy, space and defence cooperation.

He will also discuss synchronizing strategy and views on counterterrorism, Afghanistan and the reform of the international financial institutions as part of G-20’s agenda.

Sarkozy, on his second visit to India in as many years, struck all the right notes even before his touchdown in India on Saturday with a delegation that included at least six cabinet ministers and a large business contingent.

In an interview to the Hindu newspaper published on Saturday, Sarkozy explained his vision for a partnership with India. He said though economic ties were “fundamental" to France-India ties, “the relationship...cannot be reduced to its economic dimension."

“India is, first and foremost, a major political partner, an indispensable power without which we cannot rise to the major challenges the world faces," he said.

Soon after his arrival in Bangalore, in a speech at the Indian Space Research Organisation in India’s IT hub of the city, Sarkozy stated it was “unthinkable that one billion Indians are not represented in the (United Nations) Security Council (UNSC)."

France was one of the first to voice support for India’s bid for a permanent seat with then French president Jacques Chirac winning many hearts in India in 1998 when he said India had a “vocation" to be part of the elite veto-wielding UNSC.

Sarkozy also backed India’s inclusion in global groups overseeing atomic non-proliferation while promising to back India’s candidacy for the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group that controls international atomic commerce.

France was one of the first countries to begin a dialogue with India on nuclear cooperation though practical moves could only be made after the removal of 34-year-old embargos preventing nuclear commerce in 2008—largely with the backing of the US.

In his interview, Sarkozy indicated counterterrorism, Afghanistan and the reform of the world’s financial and economic institutions would be at “the heart of my discussions" with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Monday.

Given French interest to partner India in civil nuclear energy and that the centrepiece of Sarkozy’s visit is likely to be a framework agreement to set up up two 1,650MW European pressurized reactors with the help of French energy firm Areva, discussions on India’s civil nuclear liabilities Bill with provisions detailing stringent action against suppliers in the event of a nuclear accident will be top priority for Sarkozy. In the defence sector, Indian government officials said a much anticipated multi-billion-dollar pact to upgrade India’s Mirage 2000 fighter aircraft will not be signed during the visit as it is yet to be cleared by the cabinet committee on security.

With French firm Dassault in the running for India’s tender for 126 fighter aircraft—a deal estimated to be worth $10 billion and expected to be India’s largest so far—Sarkozy and his defence minister Alain Juppe are expected to push the French case.

Juppe will be visiting the Mazagaon docks to review the progress on Direction des Constructions Navales’ (DCNS) Scorpene submarine project. The project, which envisages the construction of six Scorpene submarines and got the go-ahead in 2005, provides for transfer of technology—a key Indian requirement.

“Our defence cooperation is fairly broad-based. France is a preferred partner as it is more forthcoming as far as technology issues are concerned, though the price factor could be inhibiting," said former foreign secretary Shyam Saran, now a senior fellow with the Centre for Policy Research think tank.

Former Indian ambassador to France Kanwal Sibal said that with India looking for $1 trillion worth of investment in infrastructure—an area where France has the expertise—both countries could forge a mutually beneficial partnership. This could form the basis for building “the critical mass in economic ties usually estimated to be between $18 billion and $20 billion," he said.

PTI contributed to this story.