Europe looms large in India’s diplomacy; India gains salience in EU’s worldview
While India’s outreach to Europe has not always been a linear or perfect process, the foreign policy establishment in New Delhi is beginning to realise that Europe can be an important partner in building India’s domestic capacities and resilience and meeting its foreign policy goals.
In the month of October alone, India held an in-person summit with the Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, saw the visit of United Kingdom’s new foreign secretary Elizabeth Truss, held the first ever India-UK maritime dialogue, and conducted wide ranging foreign and security policy consultations with the European Union, along with a review of the strategic partnership. Observers of Indian foreign policy will note that this interest in engaging European states – big and small – is unprecedented. While these interactions don’t always capture headlines, Europe today looms large in New Delhi’s diplomatic agenda.
Speaking at the Bled Forum in Slovenia, external affairs minister Jaishankar articulated this change, admitting that in the past Indian diplomacy lacked a nuanced approach to Europe. India saw Europe largely through the cold-war lens of east and west. That Europe had evolved wasn’t reflected in India’s approach. He argued that now India is making a conscious effort to “engage with all 27 European states and with Europe as a collective”. This assertion pans out if we look at the recent track record of India’s engagements. Not only has New Delhi increased outreach to Paris, London and Berlin, since 2016 it has put a huge effort in repairing the often lacklustre and at times rocky relationship with the EU in Brussels.
It has also taken a keen interest in engaging with Europe’s sub-regions, like the Nordic countries, and Central and Eastern Europe. Not many would have expected India to have a detailed, summit level meeting with Finland, foreign minister level visits to Bulgaria, Poland, Serbia or Luxembourg. It’s not all summits and pageantry, conversations with Europe have also evolved beyond cultural and education exchanges to cutting edge technologies, defence manufacturing, maritime security, green partnerships, and trade and investment.
This interest is reciprocated by the Europeans who are now keen on strengthening ties with India. This year in May, for instance, the EU invited India for a one-of-kind meeting – including all 27 European heads of state. In the past this format has only ever been offered to the US. Europe’s interest in India is driven not just by the size of the Indian market but also a belated yet clear recognition of its geopolitical significance in the Indo-Pacific.
Just in the last year the EU-India conversation has broadened to strategic issues like 5G, emerging technologies and artificial intelligence, maritime security in the Indian Ocean, partnership on infrastructure, and regular foreign, security and defence consultations. Only a few years ago, it would have seemed impossible that India would have security dialogues with the EU, which was seen as a rather bureaucratic actor whose priorities and interests lay elsewhere. And yet the first ever naval drills between the Indian navy and EU’s Atalanta mission took place in the Gulf of Aden this year. As it made its way through the Indo-Pacific, the German frigate Bayern also did its first passing exercise with the Indian navy.
While AUKUS captured headlines in India, the release of the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy which accords India a place of prominence, ironically got little attention. While the EU will never play an important role in military security, its Indo-Pacific strategy has much to complement New Delhi’s goals in the region as it focuses on infrastructure investments, resilient supply chains, and emerging technology – areas where a lot of competition in the Indo-Pacific is unfolding. On defence and security too, the EU wants to push for an enhanced naval presence in the region, focus more on the Indian Ocean, and increase security cooperation with India, Japan, Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam.
In many ways, India and Europe seem to now have a mutual recognition of each other’s strategic significance. The one big hurdle, from New Delhi’s perspective, is Europe’s approach to and assessment of the China challenge. Here too, European debates have evolved much more than the foreign policy establishment in Delhi often recognises. The EU Indo-Pacific strategy for instance, outlines a “multifaceted approach” to China including not just cooperation but also pushing back where fundamental disagreements exist. It even leaves the door open to working with other partners and coalitions like the Quad, when dealing with some China related challenges. While not exactly on the same page, on this issue as well India and Europe have much to talk about.
As Jaishankar pointed out at the Bled Forum, a stronger European interest and presence in the Indo-Pacific is welcome in New Delhi. When it comes to countering China’s economic and political influence in the region, Europe has the economic and technological heft to be an important partner for India. While India’s outreach to Europe has not always been a linear or perfect process, the foreign policy establishment in New Delhi is beginning to realise that Europe can be an important partner in building India’s domestic capacities and resilience and meeting its foreign policy goals.
Garima Mohan is a fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States, where she focuses on Indian foreign policy towards Europe, and Europe’s engagement in the Indo-Pacific.
The views expressed are personal