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September 30, 2021

The EU and India: A Key Partnership in the Making

Ties between the EU and India have become closer in recent years, as their interests increasingly align and Europe increasingly recognizes India’s geopolitical role in the Indo-Pacific.

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French President Emmanuel Macron and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gesture before a meeting at the Chateau of Chantilly, near Paris, France August 22, 2019.
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The European Union’s recently released Indo-Pacific strategy gives a clear indication of who it considers to be its important partners in the region. While Japan and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) come as no surprise, as they are long-standing partners with whom the EU has worked well, India stands out and occupies a place of prominence. Recast as an important strategic partner, no longer hyphenated with Pakistan, or looked at only through a trade lens, the Indo-Pacific strategy document shows the way in which European policy makers have increasingly come to view India.

While EU-India relations have had their ebbs and flows, the partnership has been on a steady upward trajectory since 2016, culminating this year with the EU-India leaders meeting where all 27 European heads of state met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on May 8. This was the first time that an Indian leader had ever participated in such a meeting. In fact, the format is rarely used by the EU and has only been offered to US presidents in the past. In 2020, such a meeting was offered to the Chinese President Xi Jinping but with tensions in the Europe-China partnership after the coronavirus crisis, it was reduced to a different, much smaller format.

It’s not just summits and pageantry, the menu of issues Europe and India talk about has expanded too. In the last two years alone, EU and Indian counterparts have met for a newly launched dialogue on maritime security, set up a working group on 5G, launched an artificial intelligence task force and digital investment forum, have restarted the negotiations on a Free Trade Agreement, met for a human rights dialogue, signed an infrastructure connectivity partnership to provide alternatives to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, initiated dialogues on climate change, and issued a joint statement on Afghanistan.

The Indian foreign minister has routinely engaged with EU foreign ministers’ meetings, most recently just before the release of the Indo-Pacific strategy. At India’s flagship foreign policy conference, the Raisina Dialogue, the delegations from Europe are constantly growing. And this year, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg made a pitch for expanding coordination with India on common security challenges. From trade and technology to security and defense both Europe and India have come to see each other as partners where even a decade ago, they did not have much in common.

A Turning Point

What precipitated this change in EU-India ties? India has been increasing its political and diplomatic investments in Europe since the mid-2000s. India’s foreign minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, recently noted at the Bled Forum in Slovenia that in the past, the Indian foreign policy establishment saw Europe largely through a Cold War lens, of Eastern and Western Europe, but has recently begun to take a more nuanced approach.

India has increased its outreach to Paris, London, and Berlin while also spending more time on the relationship with Brussels and Europe’s sub-regions. Senior political visits to and summits with the Nordic countries, Central and Eeastern European countries, Portugal, and Spain have increased remarkably in the last five years. India has realized that Europe can be an important partner in building India’s domestic resilience and capacities—several new partnership agreements with Europe have focused on increasing trade and investments, green partnerships for tackling climate change, new technologies, and defense manufacturing.

France has emerged as one of India’s most important strategic partners, not just in Europe but also globally, especially given the convergence between France’s and India’s Indo-Pacific priorities. New Delhi has deep concerns about Chinese actions and intentions in the region. The ongoing border crisis and fatal military clashes last year brought China-India relations to their worst point in decades. As India tries to shore up capabilities and looks for like-minded countries to work with in the region, Paris has become one of its closest partners. France and India have an annual strategic dialogue, regular joint military exercises, an annual strategic dialogue, and France is also a key source of defense equipment for India.

Similarly, Europe’s interest in India is driven not only by the Indian market but also a belated yet clear recognition of its geopolitical significance in the Indo-Pacific. The China factor is another explanation. European perceptions of India have been changing in tandem with increasing tensions with China. In 2018, the EU released a new strategy for cooperation with India, calling it a geopolitical pillar in a multipolar Asia, crucial for maintaining the balance of power in the region.

It is no coincidence that the India strategy was released shortly before the famous EU paper on China characterizing it as “strategic rival, competitor, and partner.” Reinvigorating the India partnership is also a key pillar of the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy, as well as those of countries like France, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and Germany. India’s response to the China challenge has focused on strengthening partnerships, economic decoupling, and diversification. This not only includes strengthening ties with its Quad partners (Australia, Japan, and the United States) but also Southeast Asia and Europe. It is no coincidence that items on the Europe-India agenda, namely maritime security in the Indian Ocean, alternatives to BRI, emerging technologies, and 5G—all have elements of competition with China.

AUKUS, Europe, and the Indo-Pacific

Joining a growing list of countries and actors around the world, the EU formally released its Indo-Pacific strategy on September 16, 2021. New Delhi will certainly be pleased by what it has read in the document. India is mentioned clearly as a partner of choice. The strategy implicitly recognizes China’s attempts to alter the regional status quo as well as the pressures its neighbors have been facing, mentioning “tensions around contested territories and maritime zones” and a “significant military build-up by China.”

India will also pay close attention to the approach to dealing with China outlined in the strategy. Even though the EU will take a cooperation-based approach in the Indo-Pacific, it will pursue a “multifaceted” engagement with China, pushing back “where fundamental disagreements exist” and working with like-minded partners in doing so. It explicitly mentions the potential for cooperating with groups like the Quad on issues like vaccines, climate change, and emerging technologies as well.

India has a similarly inclusive approach to the Indo-Pacific, of competition and not confrontation with China, and working with like-minded partners in countering challenges emerging from China not only in the realm of security, but also trade, technology, and political influence.

For many years, Delhi has not been sure about what the European approach to China is, seeing it as too accommodating, and has seen the clear limits of working with Europe at least on sensitive issues. However, the EU strategy signals a different approach and certainly opens up more possibilities for working with partners like India in ensuring stability in the Indian Ocean, on issues related to economic security, including resilient supply chains and 5G technologies, COVID-19 response and vaccine distribution, and infrastructure investments.

Unfortunately, the EU Indo-Pacific strategy came out on the day of the announcement of the security partnership between Australia, the UK, and the US—the AUKUS pact. It set off a chain reaction, primarily anger in France, and raised questions about both French and European commitment to the Indo-Pacific. An immediate casualty was the France-India-Australia trilateral which was supposed to meet on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly but was cancelled.

Overall Delhi views AUKUS as a net positive development. It speaks of renewed US commitment to the region as well as the UK’s seriousness about its Indo-Pacific tilt, and it will bolster Australia’s ability to deter China. However, the fallout for France has complicated things from India’s perspective. It has exposed clear rifts between “like-minded partners” and showed that communication will not be easy in the new partnership architecture emerging in the Indo-Pacific. It also plays into China’s efforts to drive a wedge between European and Indo-Pacific partners and forestall any coalitions or collaborative efforts.

While Paris’ commitments to the region are based on France’s own interests and its position as a resident Indo-Pacific power, India will wonder if France will change its approach to the region. And if this will have a spill-over effect on the EU strategy, which will be formally adopted during the French presidency of the EU Council in the first half of 2022.

In any case, the France-Australia rift will take a while to heal and will complicate things for Indian policy-makers. As Tanvi Madan of the Brookings Institution points out, “at the end of the day, India wants to see its various partners and like-minded coalitions pulling in the same direction. Thus, it will do what it can to soothe ruffled feathers.” The Indian prime minister and foreign minister were among the first government representatives to speak to France as the AUKUS saga unfolded.

Unlike a few years ago, Europe is an increasingly important partner for Indian foreign policy. Indian Foreign Minister Jaishankar, when speaking at the Bled Forum, noted that the Western/non-Western dichotomy was a false one. Europe and India had similar interests and goals in maintaining the liberal order as well as trust and transparency in the Indo-Pacific. This is a long way from the old days of the Indian policy of non-alignment and seeing the “West” as an untenable partner.

Garima Mohan is a fellow in the German Marshall Fund’s (GMF) Asia program.

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