Reflecting a growing depth in defence ties, India and France inked a strategic pact on Saturday, providing for the use of each other's military facilities including opening naval bases to warships, an agreement that comes amid China's growing military expansionism in the Indo-Pacific region.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and French President Emmanuel Macron held wide-ranging deliberations during which they also decided to create an annual defence dialogue at the ministerial level to explore ways to further deepen defence and strategic ties.
The two countries signed a pact on exchange and reciprocal protection of classified or protected information which came in the backdrop of the Indian government refusing to divulge details of the multi-billion dollar Indo-French Rafale fighter jet deal.
On ties in the maritime security sphere, the French President said both the countries will have "unprecedented" level of cooperation to ensure peace and stability in the Indian Ocean and in Pacific. He said space agencies of both countries will have joint monitoring mechanism for developments in the maritime sphere, while navies of the two nations will share intelligence and call their respective military bases for any requirement.
Separately, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and her French counterpart Florence Parly held talks during which detailed discussions on specific projects including on the Scorpene submarine programme for the Indian Navy was discussed.
A joint statement issued after the talks said the pact on protection of classified information reflected the high level of "strategic trust" between the two countries.
It said Modi and Macron noted with satisfaction that the "on-schedule" progress in the implementation of acquisition related agreements, including the Rafale aircraft deal and the construction of six Scorpene submarines in India, in collaboration with French shipbuilder Naval Group.
"They looked forward to continue their discussions to expand and deepen the ongoing defence manufacturing partnerships," the joint statement said. The Indo-French agreement on reciprocal logistics support for armed forces came nearly two years after India signed a similar pact with the US on use of each other's land, air and naval bases.
Officials said the agreement will facilitate the reciprocal provision of logistic support, supplies and services between the armed forces of the two countries during authorised port visits, joint exercises and joint training among others.
"The agreement is symbolic of the strategic depth and maturity reached in India-France defence ties," the joint statement said. The two sides inked the pact amid China's growing assertiveness in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific region.
Referring to maritime security cooperation, Modi and Macron reiterated that it will be crucial in order to maintain the safety of international sea lanes for unimpeded commerce and communications. "Our defence cooperation is very strong and we consider France among the most trusted defence partners," Modi said in a statement to the media, in the presence of Macron.
He said the pact on reciprocal logistic support between the armed forces is a "golden step" in defence relations. Noting that defence cooperation between the two countries now has a "new significance," Macron talked about the Scorpene submarine project for the Indian Navy and the fighter jet deal for the Air Force.
"India had made a sovereign decision in this respect (Rafale fighter jet) and we are monitoring the progress in the field. We very much want to continue the programme. It is a long-term contract which is mutually beneficial. I personally consider it as the heart of the strategic partnership," Macron said.
India had signed a government-to-government deal with France in 2016 to buy 36 Rafale fighter jets at a cost of about the Rs 58,000-crore. The Congress has been demanding details of the deal, alleging that the deal negotiated under its rule was much cheaper then the contract signed by the Modi government.
The joint statement said both sides also emphasised the importance of the joint military exercises and affirmed their intention to enhance the level of the exercises. It said both sides acknowledged that the Make-in-India initiative offers a valuable opportunity for Indian and French defence enterprises to enter into co-development and co-production projects in the defence sector, including through transfer of technologies.
"The leaders noted ongoing discussions between DRDO and SAFRAN on combat aircraft engine and encouraged necessary measures and forward-looking approaches to facilitate early conclusion," it said.