The leaders of the European Union (EU) and India met for the first virtual EU-India summit yesterday. This 15th EU-India summit comes at a crucial time – just as India is dealing with a major military crisis on the border with China and the EU is coming to its own reckoning of China as an aggressive power. That the summit is even taking place, given the Coronavirus crisis and the domestic preoccupations of both partners, is a sign of how far the EU-India relationship has come. For India, this shouldn’t be a business-as-usual meeting. As India tries to develop a comprehensive response to Chinese power by strengthening partnerships, economic decoupling and diversification – and as attitudes in Europe shift decisively away from China – the EU can be a crucial partner for India on several fronts.
This meeting followed on the heels of a strained EU-China summit, which didn’t even yield the customary joint statement, but a rather pointed statement from Brussels on “defending EU interests and values” in a “complex partnership” with China. In stark contrast, the meeting with India was set to produce a new road map for the partnership and a slew of initiatives on security, trade and investment, digital economy, infrastructure connectivity, Coronavirus crisis response and the climate crisis. This difference between the two summits is no coincidence. In fact, Europe’s perception of India has 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. Paris and Brussels have been actively pushing Europe to see India as a truly strategic partner.
Yet, in the public eye and in strategic circles in New Delhi, the value of the EU as partner is constantly underestimated. Because it is not a traditional hard power, many cannot imagine a role for Europe in dealing with the pressures New Delhi is facing. There are perennial misunderstandings on capabilities – where Brussels can deliver to Indian interests as opposed to areas where Paris or Berlin would be better partners. But as India deals with the China challenge, the EU can be a valuable partner in several strategic areas.
For example, on 5G technologies, as India reconsiders Huawei because of security concerns, European companies such as Ericsson and Nokia will be important players. Also, as India looks to check Chinese investment in its technology sector, Europe will be an important alternative. It is crucial for India to plug into the debates in Brussels on their 5G toolbox and the digital agenda to discuss mutual security concerns.
Next, as India grapples with rising Chinese influence in its neighbourhood, Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) investments and infrastructure connectivity are in the spotlight. The EU has its own connectivity strategy, providing around $473 billion in aid globally, and is already partnering with Japan and the United States to provide alternatives to BRI. This is a crucial opportunity where Brussels can deliver what India needs. Entities such as the European Investment Bank are active in India, investing in metro and other infrastructure projects. India should explore this partnership with the EU to not only fill domestic infrastructure needs but also as part of India’s neighbourhood diplomacy.
On the pandemic and China’s response, India and the EU have similar concerns. There is huge apprehension in Brussels on the disinformation campaign led by China around the origin and responses to the virus. There is also an increasing recognition that Chinese influence in international organisations needs to be countered. The EU and Australia coordinated to push for an independent enquiry into the origins of the virus at the World Health Assembly. As India takes the chair of the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) executive board, the EU can be a powerful ally in checking Chinese influence at WHO and beyond.
With troubles in EU-China relations, debate on the Indo-Pacific is also picking up in European capitals besides Paris. The EU has several programmes on maritime domain awareness and information-sharing in the Indian Ocean, which are now expanding to include South and Southeast Asia. The German navy has shown an active interest in contributing to Indian Ocean security and collaborating with partners. Japan and Australia are active diplomatically in pushing to get Europe on board the Indo-Pacific. India should actively advocate its vision of the region and explore avenues for cooperation with the EU, particularly to check Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean.
Finally, as India looks to shore up domestic capabilities and strengthen its economy, it cannot afford to ignore the free-trade agreement (FTA) with Europe which is languishing after many rounds of failed negotiations. The EU is India’s largest trading partner and the second-largest destination for Indian exports. As Europe looks to diversify supply chains and move away from China, India shouldn’t miss the opportunity to attract investments and deepen its relationship with the world’s largest trading bloc, which has already negotiated FTAs with Vietnam, Japan and Singapore.
Europe doesn’t face a territorial threat from China, and the push and pull of European policy towards China will continue. Imperfect alignment on China shouldn’t limit Europe-India cooperation. Europe has decisively moved away from a China policy based solely on economic engagement to checking Chinese influence domestically and internationally, with the tools Brussels knows best – economics, technology and diplomacy. India needs to rethink what it wants its partnership with Europe to look like and yield. Europe can be an unlikely but useful partner as India deals with the China challenge.
Garima Mohan is a fellow, Asia Programme, at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.