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Nirmala Sitharaman likely to meet French defence minister next month
(New Delhi, Sep 25, 2018):Undeterred by the unseemly controversy over the statements of former French president Francois Hollande on offsets related to Rafale fighter deal between India and France, defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman is expected to travel to France next month for the first annual defence ministers dialogue with her counterpart Florence Parly as the two countries seek to expand their strategic ties beyond bilateral joint exercises, with a focus on West Asia and the Indo-Pacific.

Sitharaman will be in Paris on October 12 and 13 and will also meet President Emmanuel Macron during her visit. She will attend the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM plus) in Singapore the following week.

Sitharaman’s visit is for the annual defence minister dialogue decided during French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to India in March, and it is also in reciprocation to Parly’s visit to India in October 2017.

“Former president Hollande’s statement was aimed at defending himself against allegations surrounding his partner. India and France are strategic partners and will continue to be so,” said a senior defence ministry official seeking anonymity.

While France is keen to sell more Rafale fighters to India beyond the contracted 36 fully loaded platforms, India is looking at the country as a close strategic partner with whom it has convergence -- from the Reunion Islands in far Pacific to the Persian Gulf in West Asia.

India and France are partnering with UAE in the Persian Gulf and Australia in the Indo-Pacific for a political alliance to ensure that sea lanes of communication are free from dominance of any aspiring global power.

“Maritime security in the Indian Ocean has become a prime area of Indo-French strategic cooperation. The western Indian Ocean is outside the jurisdiction of the US Indo-Pacific Command which is responsible for implementing the Indo-US joint strategic vision for the Indo-Pacific region. This strategic gap is being filled in by Indo-French joint strategic vision for the Indian Ocean region and the logistics agreement signed between the two countries on the pattern of LEMOA (Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement) with the US. France is an Indian Ocean power with permanent naval presence in the western Indian Ocean and keeps an eye on maritime security in the Madagascar channel. China’s inroads into Africa is a subject of concern to both countries. France is therefore a credible partner. Very specific and detailed understandings have been reached between the two countries on what the responsibilities of each of them will be in the area of maritime security,” said Kanwal Sibal, former foreign secretary and former Ambassador to France.

India and France have traditionally been close defence allies with Indian military training on high tech drones with their French counterparts in Africa as well as navies of the two countries exercising in anti-submarine warfare in Reunion Islands between May 1-7 in 2017 as part of the second leg of the Varuna bilateral naval exercise. While India signed the logistics agreement with France during President Macron visit, ratification from Paris is still awaited to operationalize the agreement.

Defence minister Sitharaman will also discuss military collaboration with Indian Defence PSUs with her counterpart as France is at the core of “Make in India” initiative. For instance, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) is working with Dassault Aviation for upgrades of Mirage-2000 fighters for the Indian Air Force (IAF), MDL is working with DCNS for Scorpene independent air propulsion submarines for the Indian Navy and Turbomeca engines are at the heart of indigenous Advanced Light Helicopter (ALF) project India is looking towards acquiring Fench Safran jet engines for its Light Combat Aircraft project but the deal is still work under progress and the two defence ministers will be discussing the way forward.

Over the years France has emerged a key defence supplier to India. From 2013- 2017, 8.5 per cent of total French defence exports were for India with an annual ballpark figure of more than 600 million Euros before the Rafale contract payouts.

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