As the problem of reversing Chinese aggression in the Ladakh region carries over from 2020, strengthening Delhi’s international coalitions becomes an important priority for Indian foreign and security policies in 2021. If the intensification of security cooperation with the United States has become an important milestone in India’s foreign policy in 2020, integrating Europe into India’s new strategic calculus ought to be a major objective in 2021.
Three recent developments underline Delhi’s changing strategic perceptions of Europe. One is India’s support for France’s membership of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). Second, India’s backing for a larger European role in the Indo-Pacific. Delhi has welcomed the interest of Germany and Netherlands in building a new geopolitical architecture in the Indo-Pacific. Third, security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific is also emerging as an important theme in the plans to work out a decade-long road map to transform the partnership between Delhi and London, which is in the throes of separating from Europe and defining a new international role for itself.
On the face of it, the three moves appear part of South Block’s quotidian diplomacy. But a closer look suggests two important conceptual departures. One, India is looking beyond the bipolar geopolitical competition between the US and China. Delhi has also begun to shed the postcolonial mental block against regional security cooperation with post-imperial Europe.
As Delhi’s difficulties with Beijing continue to mount, the US becomes an even more important security partner for India. But Delhi also wants to insure against the inevitable volatility in the complex dynamic between Washington and Beijing.
Although the US-China relationship has rapidly soured in the Trump years and the return to an era of mutual trust seems unlikely, Delhi should be prepared for a Sino-US relationship marked by intense competition and significant cooperation. China is already teasing the incoming Biden administration with the promise of a reset in bilateral relations and hinting at its support for the new US president’s ambitious goals on mitigating climate change. Meanwhile, the political questioning of the costs and benefits of America’s alliances in Europe and Asia initiated by Donald Trump is likely to continue under Biden.
To cope with the uncertain political trajectory of the US, Delhi is already supplementing its American partnership with a network of minilateral groups with other middle powers, such as the India-Australia-Japan forum and the trilateral dialogue with France and Australia. Delhi now sees European powers, individually as well as collectively through the European Union, as natural partners in constructing a durable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific.
Rebuilding ties with Europe needs a significant corrective to Delhi’s traditional strategic neglect of the continent. Both the bipolar Cold War dynamic (the East-West dimension) and the North-South framework (developing world versus the developed) prevented Delhi from taking a more nuanced view of Europe’s political agency after WWII.
Attempts to impart strategic momentum after the Cold War did not really succeed. When Europe looked at Asia, China loomed large as an attractive commercial partner. And as the economic gap between China and India widened, so did the scale of European interest in both countries. Communist China, with its special sensitivity to “inter-imperialist” contradictions, invested massive political and diplomatic effort to cultivate European political classes and economic elites. That began to pay off handsomely. India, in contrast, appeared rather indifferent to Europe.
France has been an exception. Through the 1990s, in the name of promoting a multipolar world, Paris had reached out to Delhi. President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to India in early 2018 unveiled an expansive framework for revitalising the strategic partnership.
India’s partnership with France now has a strong regional anchor — the Indo-Pacific. France, with its territories in the Western Indian Ocean and the South Pacific as well as a historic naval presence, was quick to see the challenges arising from China’s maritime expansion and the emergence of the Indo-Pacific as a new political geography.
The rest of Europe and Britain have now woken up to the China challenge and are ready to pay greater attention to Asian geopolitics and the Indo-Pacific. India, too, is breaking out of its past approaches to the Indo-Pacific defined by such binaries as “North versus South” and “regional vs extra-regional”.
What was once a political taboo in Delhi—regional security cooperation with the former imperial powers of Europe has now become a strategic necessity. The rise of China and the consequent geopolitical instabilities are inevitably producing new coalitions that break out of an old political paradigm.
To be sure, France and Britain have lingering disputes left over from the era of decolonisation in parts of the Western Indian Ocean. Delhi will have to contribute to the amicable resolution of those problems. It is also true that the European ability to project military power into the Indo-Pacific is limited. But in combination with Asian democracies, Europe can certainly make a difference. It can mobilise massive economic resources for sustainable development of regional infrastructure, wield political influence and leverage its significant soft power to shape the Indo-Pacific discourse. Above all, it can significantly boost India’s own comprehensive national power.
Until now, Asians have undervalued the potential European role in the eastern waters. Most Europeans had convinced themselves that managing Asian geopolitics was America’s burden. But as China transforms the Eurasian landmass as well as the Indo-Pacific, it is abundantly clear that the US alone cannot redress the imbalance. A strong coalition of Asian and European middle powers must now be an indispensable element of the geopolitics of the East. Such a coalition can’t be built overnight. But Delhi could push for a solid start in 2021.
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 22, 2020 under the title “India’s new Europolitik”. The writer is director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and a contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express