France hopeful for India defence deals as West courts Modi

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius (L) and Indian Defence and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley shake hands during a meeting in New Delhi on June 30, 2014. Fabius is in India for a two-day official visit during which India and France are expected to
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius (L) and Indian Defence and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley shake hands during a meeting in New Delhi on June 30, 2014. Fabius is in India for a two-day official visit during which India and France are expected to discuss issues including a multi-billion dollar Rafale combat aircraft deal. --PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI (AFP) - French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Monday he expected progress on a US$12 billion (S$15 billion) deal to sell fighter jets to India, setting his hopes on changes promised by the newly installed government.

Mr Fabius, the first Western minister to hold talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi's administration, raised the slow-moving Rafale jet deal during talks with his Indian counterpart Sushma Swaraj in New Delhi.

"We are pretty confident in swift developments and it would be very important because stemming from this contract we can develop a large partnership in the domain of defence," Mr Fabius told a press conference.

He underscored that the new right-wing government, which swept to power in May with the strongest mandate in 30 years, was "keen on the efficiency and implementation of decisions".

"The notion of efficiency in the new government approach is completely shared by us," he added.

The reform-minded Mr Modi has been widely courted by Western governments since his election in May, with his plans to open up the economy and spur economic growth raising hopes for foreign investors.

European governments and the United States boycotted him for a decade over religious riots which occurred while he was running his home state of Gujarat. They are now redoubling efforts to make up for lost time.

Japan, which has longstanding ties with Modi, is widely seen as the best poised to profit, but Fabius noted how he had been accommodated before European rivals.

Britain's William Hague is expected in the next few weeks.

"It's an honour," Mr Fabius told AFP. "It shows the depth of the ties between India and France."

The deal to supply 126 Rafale fighter jets manufactured by Dassault Aviation has been under final negotiations since January 2012.

The complicated contract, which involves technology-sharing and the production of most of the planes in India, has been making slow progress through numerous stages of vetting and evaluation.

After meeting Foreign Minister Swaraj on the first of his two days in India, Fabius held talks with Defence and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley.

Mr Jaitley raised hopes of improved defence procurement last week when he criticised the "slow pace of acquisition" and said there was a "good case for these processes to be expedited".

India's defence ministry has been beset by corruption allegations and deals often face years of delays before being finally signed.

On Tuesday, Mr Fabius is scheduled to meet Mr Modi, who has welcomed leaders from South Asia to Delhi already and has a packed foreign agenda.

He made India's smallest neighbour, Bhutan, his first foreign trip and is expected to travel to Japan soon and then the United States in September.

Mr Fabius said he had suggested that Mr Modi stop in France on the way to, or way back from, the United States, where he will attend the UN General Assembly in New York and meet President Barack Obama.

Other issues under discussion with India include deals to supply new nuclear reactors, efforts to boost tourism - only 300,000 Indian holidaymakers travel to France each year compared with 1.5 million Chinese - and space cooperation.

As Mr Fabius started his meetings, an Indian rocket blasted off from a south Indian spaceport carrying a French-made satellite built by aerospace group Airbus.

Mr Fabius will also award France's highest honour, the Legion d'honneur, to Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan in Mumbai on Tuesday.