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Indo-French alliance hurting South Asian strategic stability

French arms transfers are jeopardizing the elusive state of strategic stability in South Asia. The major powers need to balance their geo-economic interests against the legitimate concerns of maintenance of strategic stability in South Asia, for which the responsibility should not always be only on Pakistan.

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Seeing a fighter aircraft adorned with flowers, with coconuts being put in front of its windshield and sprinkled with Holy water from Ganga is rather an unusual sight. But despite that, such rare scenes of lemons been put against the wheels of Rafale, the French fighter aircraft, were witnessed in a ceremony held in France in October 2019. India’s Defence Minister Rajnath Singh performed the religious ritual on the first out of the 36 planned Rafale fighter aircraft being handed over to India on the French airbase.

India had ordered 36 Rafale fighter aircraft in September 2016 for a cost of $8.7 billion. The aircraft, manufactured by France-based Dassault Aviation, are twin-engine multi-role fighter jets. They are nuclear-capable and can engage in both air-to-air and air-to-ground attacks.

In early February 2019, India used the French supplied nuclear-capable Mirages to launch a failed attack, allegedly on terror training camps within Pakistan, in a dangerously escalatory move. France was among the states that patted on the Indian back over such belligerence rather than cautioning the latter about the inherent dangers of initiating what could have turned into a major war.

Read more: PAF pilots flew Rafale before IAF so it knows its weaknesses: India’s Defense Dreams Shatter

Second-largest arms importer

India has been on a weapons buying spree for decades now and has kept it position of the world’s second-largest arms importer during the period 2015-19, according to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI’s) 2019 annual report. In fact, it has been amongst the top arms importers for several years as it has been taking steps to modernize its armed forces by acquiring combat jets, helicopters, submarines, warships, artillery guns and assault rifles from countries like Russia, the US, France and Israel.

Noticeably, between 2015-19, while India continued with its policy of supplier diversification, its arms imports from France increased by 715%, making it third-largest suppliers during 2015-19. The Rafale deal is just one instance of the growing Indo-French cooperation in defence, nuclear technology space and maritime domain.

Bolstering Indian Capabilities in Indian Ocean

To counter the growing Chinese influence as well as its increasing presence in the Indian Ocean, France is investing heavily in the Indian maritime domain. It is supplying weapon systems, transferring technology, training military , logistics and interoperability. In 2005, India had signed a $3 billion deal with French Naval Group (also called DCNS) to assemble and build six Scorpene-class diesel-electric submarines under a transfer of technology agreement.

By November 2019, two such submarines have been commissioned in the Indian Navy. The Scorpene submarines are AIP run attack submarines most suited for an anti-submarine warfare (ASW) mission. In the latest India-Pakistan crisis in 2019, India had deployed its Kalvari-class submarines for ASW mission in the North Arabian Sea and Pakistan Navy forced it to surface in its territorial waters.

In its bid to increase its reach in the Western Indian Ocean and North Arabian Sea and enhance its maneuverability, India has entered into logistical agreement with France similar to that of naval logistics agreement it had concluded with the US.

The agreement was made possible because of the 2018 Joint Strategic Vision for India-France Cooperation in the Indian Ocean, which stated the intent for reciprocal access to each other’s military facilities. As a result of the agreement, the Indian navy (IN) can dock at France’s naval base on Reunion Island for refueling, and Delhi is negotiating access to the facility in Djibouti.

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Other areas of the MoU included exchange and reciprocal protection of classified information and cooperation in maritime domain awareness and expansion in the scope of the joint naval exercises. The Varuna joint naval exercises conducted in 2019 were the largest ever exercises, and focused on ASW missions apart from developing interoperability between the two navies.

The exercises also reflected India’s increasing strategic footprint in the Western Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea, an area of primary interest for Pakistan Navy. Although the French and Indian naval cooperation is brandished as countering the Chinese strategic challenge, it is not a primary threat to India. The growing Indian footprint in the Western Indian Ocean is a cause of great worry for Pakistan.

India has a strong military presence in several islands in the Western Indian Ocean including Mauritius and Seychelles apart from the operational control of port in Chahbahar (Iran), a naval base in Duqm (Oman), and a signal intelligence facility near Ras-al-Hadd, Oman.

In August 2019- in its unconstitutional decision of stripping the Kashmiri’s of their right to decide for their freedom and illegal revocation of the special status of the disputed territory

These arrangements can serve as ideal tools for intelligence gathering, maritime domain awareness and for blocking the sea lanes of communication in times of crises. The latter threat of blocking the SLOCs is one that was implemented in the 1971 war by India against Pakistan and has later been resurfacing in India-Pakistan bilateral tabletop crisis simulations.

Undermining Global Nonproliferation Norms

France was the first state to enter into strategic nuclear cooperation with India post NSG waiver and has supported its membership in Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), Australia Group (AG) and Wassenaar Arrangement (WA) and ardently supports India’s membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). India is neither a signatory to the treaty for the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) nor has it signed the CTBT.

Furthermore, courtesy the relaxed IAEA additional protocol it has signed, it has chosen to keep eight of its nuclear weapons facilities outside nuclear safeguards and continues to amass nuclear material for weapons apart from producing unsafeguarded Highly Enriched Uranium for its submarine program. France nonetheless, supports Indian case based on its geopolitical exigencies undermining equitable enforcement of nonproliferation norms for NPT outliers.

Read more: Pakistan all set to add 36 Mirage-V Combat Aircraft to its arsenal

It would be pertinent here to recall that France came to India rescue undermining nonproliferation norms back in the 1980s; when India had illegally diverted the nuclear fuel from its Cirus reactor- supplied by Canada for electricity production- to conduct a nuclear explosion.

Even though the Nuclear Suppliers Group was established to curb nuclear technology exports to potential proliferators like India, however, later when the US cut-off the fuel supply for Tarapur in the 1980s, France supplied India with the nuclear fuel. In a stark contrast, the French reneged on their bilateral agreement with Pakistan to build a reprocessing facility in Chashma in the aftermath of Indian ‘original sin’ of proliferation.

Fueling Strategic Instability

The Indo-French Strategic partnership is now being enhanced at the cost of South Asian Strategic Stability. The ‘counterweight against China” card has been overplayed by India abroad to attract foreign investment in its defence sector. Indian Premier Narendra Modi dubbed it as, ‘InFra’, i.e. an alliance between India and France.

The stockpiling of offensive armament by India aided with provocative doctrines to counter the so-called Chinese threat has accentuated the strategic instability in South Asia and is likely to mar the region in a costly arms race.

French arms transfers of nuclear-capable aircraft, submarines, and arms transfers not only undermine established nonproliferation norms but seriously jeopardize the elusive state of strategic stability in South Asia

The Hindutva extremist mindset and a fascist ideology of ruling over all other races has dangerously woven itself with majoritarian Indian politics and has marred the society with extremism and racial superiority that has manifested in large scale violence against Muslims and other minorities all over India.

A bizarre face of similar revisionism has been demonstrated by India – in August 2019- in its unconstitutional decision of stripping the Kashmiri’s of their right to decide for their freedom and illegal revocation of the special status of the disputed territory.

In its nefarious design to divert the world’s attention from the human right violations within its territory, India carried out a failed attempt to attack within Pakistan’s territory using French and Russian aeroplanes and guided bombs imported from Israel. The attack was a recipe for war and uncontrollable escalation had the Pakistani leadership not acted with extreme restraint and responsibility.

Read more: Active Radar Homing Missiles: Ability to Destroy Fighter Jets without needing Radar

Indian utter disregard for UNSC

Noticeably, France stood by Indian hostility across the International border and supports India’s candidature of UNSC albeit its desire for putting the regional stability hostage to its grand revisionist designs regionally. A state unwilling to resolve bilateral disputes peacefully would add to the burden of international security rather than sharing it at the United Nations level.

The Indian disregard for United Nations Security Council Resolutions on Kashmir dispute is a glaring case in point in this regard. What South Asia saw last year during the Balakot-Rajouri skirmish was a trailer of what partnerships and deals forged on geopolitical biases and economic exigencies can do to the nuclear-armed states geographically living next to each other.

Though rationality prevailed because of Pakistan’s responsible conduct in the February 2019 crisis irrespective of Indian persistent hostility, the chances of swift escalation to the nuclear level can never be underrated in the future crisis.

Read more: Nuclear Trigger-Happy: India or Pakistan?

French arms transfers of nuclear-capable aircraft, submarines, and arms transfers not only undermine established nonproliferation norms but seriously jeopardize the elusive state of strategic stability in South Asia. The major powers need to balance their geo-economic interests against the legitimate concerns of maintenance of strategic stability in South Asia, for which the responsibility should not always be, only on Pakistan.

Saima Aman Sial is a Senior Research Officer in the Center for International Strategic Studies Islamabad. She is a former South Asian Voices Fellow Henry L. Stimson Center, D.C., USA, and Center for Nonproliferation Studies Monterey California, USA. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy. 

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