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How Delhi came to see Europe as a valuable strategic partner

C Raja Mohan writes: With its economic weight, technological strength and normative power, the EU promises to enhance India’s quest for a multipolar world, rebalanced Indo-Pacific.

Written by C. Raja Mohan |
Updated: October 13, 2021 7:29:24 am
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his Danish counterpart in New Delhi.

Last week’s in-person summit in Delhi was with the Danish prime minister, Mette Frederiksen. This was apt, since Europe looms so large in the Indian diplomatic agenda today and smaller European states draw unprecedented political attention from Delhi.

If the Danish encounter highlighted India’s immense possibilities with the smaller European countries, the prospects for larger strategic cooperation with the European collective have opened up with the articulation of a comprehensive Indo-Pacific strategy by the European Union last month. That Denmark, a country of barely six million people, can establish a significant green partnership with India, is a reminder that smaller countries of Europe have much to offer in India’s economic, technological, and social transformation.

If tiny Luxembourg brings great financial clout, Norway offers impressive maritime technologies, Estonia is a cyber power, Czechia has deep strengths in optoelectronics, Portugal is a window to the Lusophone world, and Slovenia offers commercial access to the heart of Europe through its Adriatic sea port at Koper. The list goes on. As India begins to realise this untapped potential, there are new openings with the 27-nation EU headquartered in Brussels.

That the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy got little public attention in Delhi is part of the entrenched indifference to Europe in India’s foreign policy discourse. To be sure, the release of the EU’s approach to the Indo-Pacific was overshadowed by the controversial announcement of the AUKUS partnership on nuclear-powered submarines. The nuclear-powered submarines to be built by the US and UK for Australia won’t sail the waters of the Indo-Pacific for years to come; but that generated much, if pointless, excitement in Delhi. The EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy, hardly noticed in Delhi, is likely to have a much greater impact on the region more immediately and on a wider range of areas than military security. They range from trade and investment to green partnerships, the construction of quality infrastructure to digital partnerships, and from strengthening ocean governance to promoting research and innovation. Defence and security are important elements of the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy that “seeks to promote an open and rules-based regional security architecture, including secure sea lines of communication, capacity-building and enhanced naval presence in the Indo-Pacific”.

For the first time since the European colonial powers retreated from Asia amidst the surge of nationalist movements in the middle of the 20th century, Europe is returning as a geopolitical actor to Asia and its waters — the Indo-Pacific if you will. But the context is very different. Few Asian countries view Europe with strategic suspicion. Many in Asia see Europe as a valuable partner. A survey earlier this year of policymakers and thought-leaders in the ASEAN region put the EU as the most trusted partner in the region after Japan and ahead of the US. China and India are way down the list.

As the deepening confrontation between the US and China begins to squeeze South East Asia, Europe is widely seen as widening the strategic options for the region. The perspective is similar in Delhi, which now sees Brussels as a critical element in the construction of a multipolar world. As External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar puts it, India’s strategy is to “engage America, manage China, cultivate Europe, reassure Russia, bring Japan into play”. For the students of Indian foreign policy, the command to “cultivate Europe” is certainly new.

The Cold War, which divided Europe into East and West, had distorted India’s perspective of the region. In the colonial era, both the nationalists and the princes developed a wide-ranging engagement with Europe. After independence, India viewed Western Europe as an extension of the US and saw Eastern Europe through Moscow’s eyes. As it tilted to the Soviet Union during the Cold War, India developed a political prickliness towards the western part of Europe and took the East for granted.

As Europe launched the bold experiment to construct a Union in the 1990s, Delhi had a different set of diplomatic priorities — salvaging a relationship with post-Soviet Russia, normalising relations with China, connecting with the US, and managing a more troubled relationship with nuclear Pakistan. This left little diplomatic bandwidth in Delhi to think strategically about Europe. Asked to explain his remarks on ‘cultivating Europe”, at the Bled Strategic Forum in Slovenia last month, Jaishankar admitted that Delhi did not devote adequate attention in the past to Brussels. He added that Delhi is now focused on developing a strong partnership with Brussels and engage all its 27 members — big and small — individually. Brussels has long been ready to dance with Delhi.

The EU outlined a strategy for India in 2018 to focus on four themes — sustainable economic modernisation, promotion of a rules-based order, foreign policy coordination, and security cooperation. At the summit in Portugal in May this year, the EU and India agreed to resume free trade talks and develop a new connectivity partnership that would widen options for the world beyond the Belt and Road Initiative. Above all, there is a recognition in both Delhi and Brussels that the India-EU strategic partnership is crucial for the rebalancing of the international system amidst the current global flux.

The clamour in Europe for “strategic autonomy” has certainly increased in the wake of AUKUS that pushed France out of its submarine deal with Australia. Washington has moved quickly to rebuild trust with Paris.

In a joint statement issued after talks with French President Emmanuel Macron, Joe Biden affirmed the “strategic importance of French and European engagement in the Indo-Pacific region, including in the framework of the European Union’s recently published strategy for the Indo-Pacific.” Whatever the specific circumstances of the AUKUS deal and its impact on France, the US wants all its partners, especially Europe, to contribute actively to the reconstitution of the Asian balance of power.

The EU strategy, in turn, sees room for working with the Quad in the Indo-Pacific, while stepping up security cooperation with a number of Asian partners, including India, Indonesia, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Singapore and Vietnam.

A stronger Europe with greater geopolitical agency is very welcome in Delhi. India is conscious that Europe can’t match America’s military heft in the Indo-Pacific. But it could help strengthen the military balance and contribute to regional security in multiple other ways. Delhi knows that Europe could significantly boost India’s capacity to influence future outcomes in the Indo-Pacific. It would also be a valuable complement to India’s Quad coalition with Australia, Japan and the United States.

It was Russia that defined India’s discourse on the multipolar world after the Cold War. Today, it is Europe — with its much greater economic weight, technological strength, and normative power — that promises to boost India’s own quest for a multipolar world and a rebalanced Indo-Pacific.

This column first appeared in the print edition on October 12, 2021 under the title ‘European booster shot’. The writer is director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express

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