India's welcome abroad that of a client who comes calling

The prime minister’s foreign visits are getting increasingly transactional

PM Modi with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris (Photo: Getty Images)
PM Modi with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris (Photo: Getty Images)

Sarosh Bana

With the West looking at India as a coveted customer, the US and its allies have been emphatically courting India’s prime minister to ostensibly enlist India as a counterweight to China in the Asia–Pacific. This idea has been widely rubbished, as many believe the West finds it more opportune to sell arms to India while raising the bogey of Chinese belligerence.

They feel that India, under the Modi government, is increasingly coveted as a lucrative client as it is the world’s largest arms importer, with an 11 per cent share of total global arms imports, as cited by Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

In all likelihood, Western leaders are mindful of the fact that India is not in a position to counterbalance China’s rising profile in the Indo-Pacific, with the prime minister avoiding raising with Chinese president Xi Jinping the issue of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops continuing to occupy vast tracts of Indian territory and building expansive infrastructure there, after overrunning the border Union territory of Ladakh in May 2020.

The Modi regime is seen to lack a coherent strategy against Chinese belligerence, as it also appears unable, or unwilling, to counter further Chinese cross-border transgressions in the other border states of Arunachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Sikkim.

Indeed, New Delhi has urged Western leaders against mentioning China in any joint statements with India so as not to provoke Beijing, an attitude borne out by Kenneth Juster, former US ambassador to India, who observed last year, “The restraint in mentioning China in any US–India communication or any quad communication comes from India, which is very concerned about not poking China in the eye.”

China was also left out of Modi and Macron’s joint statement at the end of the former’s ‘brief working visit to Paris’ in May 2022, which did, however, refer to Ukraine and even Afghanistan.

New Delhi, in fact, has a business-as-usual approach to Beijing, which last year emerged as India’s largest trading partner, with bilateral trade peaking to an all-time high of $135.98 billion, driven by a 22 per cent rise in imports from China. India registered a trade deficit crossing $100 billion with China for the first time, according to data released by China. While India’s imports from China were worth $118.5 billion, its exports nosedived 38 per cent year-on-year to $17.48 billion. In contrast, India’s trade with the US was worth $128.55 billion in 2022–23.

Just a day before Modi’s visit, India’s Defence Acquisition Council—chaired by the defence minister—which decides on new policies and capital acquisitions for the three services, approved the acquisition of 26 Rafale-Marine, or Rafale-M, carrier-capable fighter aircraft made by Dassault and three additional Scorpene-class diesel–electric attack submarines produced by the other French defence contractor, Naval Group.

Curiously, while the MoU for the three Scorpene submarines was mentioned in the initial joint statement, all references to it were expunged from the subsequent roadmap adopted by the two leaders, titled ‘Horizon 2047—25th Anniversary of the India–France Strategic Partnership, towards a Century of India–France Relations’. Neither communiqué mentioned the Rafale aircraft.

The flurry of high-priced procurement programmes by India seemed to flout the Modi government’s own shrill calls for aatmanirbharta (self-reliance) that aims at encouraging indigenous design, development and manufacture of defence equipment, with a view to reducing imports.

Similar costly defence deals had taken centrestage during the prime minister’s 21–24 June state visit to the US. The deals included India’s $3.1 billion purchase of 31 General Atomics MQ-9B Reaper weaponised drones, to be assembled in the country, as also joint manufacturing in India of the GE F414 fighter jet engines by General Electric and the State-owned Hindustan Aeronautics. Moreover, India also agreed to provide logistics, repair and maintenance infrastructure for American military aircraft and ships in transit.

Though Modi and Macron refrained from specifying any arms deals, the deepening military partnership between their two countries was highlighted by the salute both the leaders took at the Bastille Day parade on July 14 that had the participation of a 240-strong Indian tri-services contingent as also a fly-past by the Indian and French air forces’ Rafale fighters.

Some reports estimated the deals for the Indian Navy on the 26 Rafale-Ms and three additional Scorpene-class submarines to be worth $13.3 billion, but the final cost may be far higher per ‘historical costing’, which considers inflation and costs reflected in inflation.

The submarines themselves will cost about $1 billion each, compared to around $630 million each in an earlier deal, while the marine Rafales will cost upwards of $310 million each in comparison with the air force Rafales’ price of $250 million each.

The shroud of secrecy over the two deals might have been prompted by a major controversy that had clouded a previous procurement programme with France. This earlier deal on Rafale for the IAF was tainted by alleged overvaluation and crony capitalism when Prime Minister Modi, during his visit to France in 2016, personally concluded a deal worth 7.8 billion for 36 of these 4.5-generation combat aircraft.

This was despite the IAF’s requirement of 126 aircraft to bolster its dwindling fleet, shrunk to 31 squadrons from the sanctioned strength of 42. India moreover reportedly paid 41 per cent more than the price settled by the previous government that had contracted for 18 ‘fly-away’ Rafale jets, plus 108 to be manufactured under licence by state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited.

The hefty increase in Rafale’s price was also reportedly caused by the deal’s bypassing mandated procedures in the face of official objections. The overvaluation issue came to the fore again when Egypt signed a deal for 30 Rafales in 2021 for a modest €3.9 billion.

The three Scorpene submarines agreed upon, in turn, are to be follow-ons to the six of their class built in India under licence from Naval Group under Project-75 (P-75), which had been finalised in 2005 but has been plagued by severe cost and time overruns.

While its original contract cost of $2.63 billion in 2010 eventually spiralled to over $4 billion, the sixth and last of these 1,565-tonne submarines will join service only next year, with the programme running six years behind schedule.

India thus has built only six submarines since 1999, when a 30-year plan had sought the induction of 24 by 2030, half of them to be constructed with foreign collaboration by 2012, while the balance 12 were to be “built to indigenous design”. Some submarines are now close to being paid off and the fleet now comprises 10 or fewer submarines that are operational at any time.

Meanwhile, many military veterans fear that the prolonged delays in raising the requisite air and naval force levels can affect India’s combat readiness.

At another level, Modi’s France visit signifies India’s drift away from Russia, which had historically been its primary defence partner. Siemon Wezeman, senior researcher (arms transfers programme), SIPRI, estimates that while Russia’s share of total Indian arms imports declined from 64 per cent in the 2013–17 period to 45 per cent between 2018 and 2022, France is now the biggest beneficiary with its share surging from 4.3 per cent to 29 per cent over these two periods respectively.

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