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'India values its nuclear partnership with France, Russia'
Ranjan Mathai, Indian ambassador to France

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September 29, 2008
After meeting President George W Bush [Images] in Washington, DC, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh [Images] flew to Marseille, France [Images], for the yearly European Union-India Summit. Dr Singh will then arrive in Paris where he is expected to sign an agreement in the field of civil nuclear cooperation with French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Senior Contributor Claude Arpi spoke to Ranjan Mathai, India's ambassador to France, to discuss not only the nuclear deal which will soon be operational and will have no other conditionality than the ones imposed by the Nuclear Suppliers Group waiver in Vienna [Images], but also all other aspects of the Indo-French relations, ten years after the signature of a privileged strategic partnership with France in January 1998.

Let us first take the bilateral relations between France and India. 10 years ago, a strategic partnership agreement was signed between the two nations. It was one of the first to be signed. What is your assessment of this partnership today?

Indeed, it is a partnership which has grown in strength and maturity. We are today moving into concrete steps in all strategic fields.

Take first the field of space. We are increasing collaboration and have reached the stage where India's launch capacities will be used by France and its European partners. Then take defence -- we have a number of ongoing projects which are important to both sides.

Of course, there is the well-known Scorpene submarine project. Then there is the upgrade (you call it 'retrofitting') of the Mirage (fighter aircraft) which is crucial for our air force. There is also some ongoing discussion on a collaboration on missiles.

With MBDA (a subsidiary of EADS of France and BAE of UK)?

Yes, between MBDA and its Indian counterpart. In the months to come, we are hoping for some substantial progress in all this.

What about the 126 fighter planes for which bidding is opened?

It is an international tender opened to the major manufacturers. We understand that Dassault of France is one of the bidders. Though (in this case) evaluation and discussions have just started.

One issue which has been at the centre of the political stage in India is the nuclear deal. The media and the politicians have projected the deal as a US nuclear deal, though other players, mainly France and Russia [Images], have been involved from the start. Do you see it as a US nuclear deal only?

Let me put it this way. I don't know what the media is saying, but we, the Government of India, have always valued the potential of its partnership in the field of civil nuclear energy with both France and Russia.

Specifically for France, we expect that the bilateral agreement which was prepared earlier (and initialed) during the visit of President Sarkozy to India (in January 2008) will be signed during the prime minister's visit to France.

I must say that we appreciate very much the role of France during the talks with the NSG and the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency).

Has France been very supportive?

France has indeed been very active and supportive of India, not only during bilateral negotiations but also with other European partners and other members of these fora, particularly during the NSG negotiations. I have formally conveyed India's appreciation to the French government.

Reprocessing is not mentioned in the agreement previously initialed. Will you discuss this point during the bilateral talks?

I don't want to comment on the details. All matters related to civil nuclear cooperation will be discussed between both parties and the implementation will be made by the designated agencies of the two sides.

Both France and India have been facing attacks in Afghanistan in recent months. The French public is seriously concerned after the killing of 10 French soldiers and the Indian embassy was bombed in Kabul. Is there any collaboration between the two sides? Are you satisfied with the strategic dialogue on terrorism?

These are two different questions; though there are inter-relationships. One is in the general field of counter-terrorism or joint action against terrorism. We are at the stage of exchanging information.

We have a strategic dialogue (held twice a year between the Indian national security advisor and his French counterpart). The fight against terrorism is an important part of this dialogue. As the result of these regular meetings, the coordination (in the fight) against terrorism and the flow of information is improving. We hope that it will even become more effective in the coming years.

With regard to Afghanistan, we have always been in favour of international efforts for the stabilisation and reconstruction of the country. We ourselves have been involved in the field of economic reconstruction. We have taken up several projects (roads, etc) and we are training the Afghan forces.

The Afghan government has the Afghan National Development Strategy Plan which embodies the strategic priorities and aspirations of the Afghan government and people. We are supporting it, not only bilaterally (between India and Afghanistan) but also internationally. The national security of Afghanistan is part of the development strategy.

In June we participated in the international conference convened by the government of France and held in Paris. We then reiterated our support for the reconstruction and development activities of the Karzai government. We welcomed the role of France in bringing all concerned countries together.

The loss suffered by the French troops was a shock not only for France, but also for India. In fact our defence minister (A K Antony) has written to (Herve Morin) his French counterpart expressing India's shock and has presented our condolences for the French losses.

One of the criticisms against NATO is that it is not doing enough for the reconstruction like India is doing. Being geographically, historically and culturally closer to Afghanistan, could India advice NATO and France in this matter?

I don't think we would like to advise anybody, certainly not any international organisation, but in all our statements, in all our dialogues, we have repeatedly said that the Afghans themselves have devised as a consensus what they call their national development strategy, which includes security and reconstruction. Anything fitting into this is conducive for international cooperation.

About economic relations, President Sarkozy spoke of doubling the bilateral trade with India (to 12 billion euros) by 2012. Is it achievable? In which field do you see the most scope of growth?

It is important to remember that the 6 or 6.5 billon euros bilateral trade is very small considering the size of our two economies and the large size of our foreign trade. It is certainly not enough. In 2007, foreign trade grew at 26 per cent. If we are able to maintain this pace, the 12 billion euros target should be achievable even before 2012.

We are looking at an increased French investment in India (and a significant Indian investment in France). Investment-led trade could be a major factor in the years to come, particularly in infrastructure and high technologies.

What about nuclear cooperation?

Once the agreement gets off the ground and when groups like Areva come (to India), there will be a major increase in trade. Even now, if you look at trends in infrastructure, cement, railways, autos, etc. there is a great potential.

Claude Arpi's fascinating interview with Ambassador Mathai continues tomorrow.

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