Doval, French prez adviser to hold strategic talks today

French President Emmanuel Macron’s top adviser Emmanuel Bonne and India’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval will on Thursday hold an annual strategic dialogue that is expected to review the progress made over a 10,000-megawatt nuclear power plant to be set up in Maharashtra and the construction of six diesel-electric submarines under the Indian Navy’s P-75I programme, people aware of the developments said.

The two top advisers will also discuss improving maritime security and developments in the Indo-Pacific region, particularly in the context of China’s aggressive moves along the Line of Actual Control, they said.

Bonne, President Macron’s diplomatic adviser, is expected to call on PM Narendra Modi and external affairs minister S Jaishankar, and meet foreign secretary Harsh Shringla on Friday. “The two sides will hold discussions on wide-ranging bilateral and global issues,” the external affairs ministry said in a statement ahead of the strategic dialogue that will seek to reinforce deep ties between the two countries. France has been one of India’s most reliable partners in Europe for years but the two countries inched closer over the last few years, leading to a defence deal for 36 Rafale aircraft. When French defence minister Florence Parly was in India last year in the context of the induction of the fighter jets in the Indian Air Force, she and defence minister Rajnath Singh agreed to stick to the Rafale template of government-to-government deals for future defence purchases.

India is expected to sign a $2.5-billion contract this year for 56 medium-transport aircraft under the Make in India initiative. India is also looking at the acquisition of six Airbus 330 multi-role transport tanker aircraft for expanding the IAF’s strike capability through latest mid-air refuellers as well as the Safran aircraft engines under the Make in India programme. The jet engines which are used by Dassault Aviation for the Rafale jets could be used to power the twin-engine advanced multi-role combat aircraft developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) till it develops its own version.

An official said that France responded positively to New Delhi’s concerns about access of military technology to countries which have adversarial relations with India, a reference to Pakistan. France has decided against helping Pakistan upgrade its fleet of Mirage fighter jets, air defence system and Agosta 90B class submarines, a decision that was timed after Prime Minister Imran Khan’s loud criticism of French President Macron. Around the same time, France also conveyed to Qatar, which had earlier bought Rafale jets for its air force, not to allow any Pakistan-origin technicians near the aircraft for maintenance.

Pakistan watchers said that it was on account of the French government’s restrictive approach that the Mirage 3 and Mirage 5 fighter jets in Pakistan air force’s inventory did not participate in last month’s joint aerial exercises, Eagle-IX, involving the Chinese and Pakistan air force. Doval and Bonne are also expected to discuss India’s other neighbour, China, in some detail, particularly given French concerns around Beijing attempting to flex muscles in the Indo-Pacific region. China has, for instance, been trying to get people in the French island group of New Caledonia to vote for independence in three referendums being held to decide its future. This island group with an area of 18,575 sq km, located in the South Pacific east of Australia, is one of the 16 overseas territories of France that are home to 1.5 million French citizens.

In October last year, France formalised its interest in the Indo-Pacific when President Macron appointed Christophe Penot, one of his country’s most senior diplomats as the first French envoy for the Indo-Pacific. As part of this focus, France has forged new initiatives such as the trilateral dialogue launched with India and Australia in September last to enhance cooperation and strengthen multilateralism in the region.

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