The India-EU Leaders’ Meeting held on May 8, 2021 marked a historic development in India’s relationship with the European Union (EU). The developments represent a significant corrective to New Delhi’s strategic dogma and the strategic shift of the EU towards the Indo-Pacific region. The Bi-polar Cold War dynamics and the North-South divide had prevented Delhi from creating active partnerships with the continent. Until the recent developments, it was no secret that both the players have been reluctant to engage in a long-term partnership with each other as the relationship kept underperforming. Nevertheless, the recent realpolitik has overcome the complacency of both India and the EU, which has created a greater role for both the players in the world dynamics, especially in the Indo-Pacific region. The article tries to highlight some of the dynamics that led to a strategic shift in thinking of both the players and, suggests areas for a stronger India-EU partnership in the Indo-Pacific region.

 

Corrective Underpinnings and Strategic Necessities

 

Delhi’s changing strategic perceptions have created momentum for corrective underpinnings in building its relationship with the EU. It has supported France’s membership in the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), engaged Netherlands and Germany in the Indo-Pacific and has backed a greater European role in the region. For a very long time, India has also been calling the EU to define its sovereign interests for a greater India-EU partnership in the Maritime domain of the region. These developments have created an opportunity to transform the relationship between the players. A closer look at these dynamics suggests that India is trying to look beyond the geopolitical competition between the United States and China as its challenges with Beijing continue to mount. Though the US becomes a key security partner for India, Delhi is trying to insure against the possible volatility of the relationship shared between the US and China. Hence, if developments in security co-operation with the US has been a priority for India in 2020, integrating the EU into India’s strategic calculus needs to be a priority in 2021.

 

Embracing the Indo-Pacific as a real-time geopolitical construct did not come naturally to the EU. Its role in the region has been distant owing to its internal incoherence. This explains the delay in realising and releasing its official strategic policy document on Indo-Pacific unlike Germany, France, Netherlands or the UK. EU’s distant geographical location has been another reason for Brussels having a meagre presence in the maritime waters of the region. Evolving security landscape has created an exigence for a European response owing to the need for connectivity and partnerships in the region. Further, the concept of Indo-Pacific is reviewed as anti-China by Beijing, which made Brussels wary of adopting a strategy in the Indo-Pacific. Nevertheless, the pandemic has redefined the European approach towards the region. Though in the initial phase, different states were affected at different scales, almost all the members of the union were confounded by heavy reliance on goods and services from other countries. When a resilient response to the pandemic and capacity to respond autonomously by the states was found undermined, it became a strategic necessity for the EU to ascertain whom it wants to partner with as a priority. Additionally, The EU’s Leipzig Summit with China and consistent dialogues on Trade and Investments that went on for over 7 years, turned damp squib and it has become clearer that China's economic policies are diverging away from the European expectations. Hence, the EU was looking for an opportunity to engage in the Indo-Pacific by not siding either with the US or China. A new sense of realism can now be depicted in the EU’s geopolitical game as the pandemic created turns in its approaches.

 

New Delhi sees the European states individually, as well as collectively through the union, as natural partners to construct a balance of power in the region. Until now, even the EU has undermined its role in the eastern waters and in most of the times; Brussels perceived that managing Asian geo-politics is a burden of the US. However, as new dynamics emerge with the rise of expansionist powers, it has become clear that the US alone cannot address these issues. The rise of China and consequent geopolitical instabilities are inevitably producing new partnerships in the region that turn away from the old political paradigms. A strong coalition of Asia and Europe is now seen as an indispensable element of geopolitics of the East. This essentially means that for both the EU and India, partnerships at various fronts has become a strategic necessity. Although both the players appear to be keen in deepening engagements in the region, it involves multitude of challenges and a gamut of stakes. Hence, both the players need to actively engage in transforming their Indo-Pacific strategy into a joint EU-India development partnership.

 

Collaborative Efforts and Joint Partnerships

 

India-EU FTA and Indo-Pacific Construct

 

Although India and EU are placed at different tangents of development in the region, a collaborative exercise can advance the interests of both. The Joint commitment of the May 8 summit has renewed long stalled hopes for the possibility of active engagement in Trade and Investment between the players. Resumption of negotiations on Free Trade Agreement (FTA) can naturally mean economic culmination of the relationship. Nevertheless, reaching consensus on an agreement that is balanced, ambitious and mutually beneficial will involve several trade-offs on both sides. It is vital to realise that sticky issues like market access, tariff barriers, entry barriers and investment protection led to halting of the negotiations in 2013. But today, the FTA represents greater strategic interests for both the players to transform the Indo-Pacific. This also means extending development partnerships to multiple players in the region. Hence, aligning the parties’ interests with their Indo-Pacific strategies must be a natural component of the negotiations.

 

SDGs and Joint Partnerships

 

Further, the EU’s Indo-Pacific Strategy targets the promotion of SDGs as a critical component to bridge multiple tangents of development in the region. As an emerging development partner, New Delhi can engage with the EU to advance its own developmental strategy. This will create a position in which the EU’s development policy in the Indo-Pacific can be aligned with India’s development agenda on trade, technology, Blue Economy and resilient supply chains. Thus, the relationship can open a new space of engagement for New Delhi against China. According to the EU’s Connectivity strategy in Asia, Brussels is keen on advancing transport, energy, technology, trade and digital dimensions to counter the Chinese BRI. These elements can naturally form a basis for partnership through the International Solar Alliance (ISA). India’s ambitious One Sun, One World, One Grid (OSOWOG) project intends to transfer solar power to over 140 countries through a common grid. With Germany specialising in manufacturing high quality solar panels, a joint initiative to advance SDG 7, 13 and 17 by the EU and India can create a counter intuitive Indo-Pacific construct against the BRI.

 

Security in the Ocean waters

 

In the maritime sphere, it is evident that the European ability to project its military capability in the Indo-Pacific is limited. But an alignment with the Asian democracies could mean a greater European role in the security dynamics of the region.  The EU can mobilise its economic resources for resilient regional infrastructure, wield its political influence and also leverage its soft power that can shape the regional discourse. This can also enable to boost India’s own comprehensive maritime interests.

 

Cooperation in Health Sector

 

Further, co-operation and competition in the health sector has become a core element of the current geopolitics and that of EU’s engagement with Asia. The EU’s need to mitigate its dependency and advance health sovereignty can be made possible through the ‘Pharmacy of the World’. India has means to play a comprehensive role in becoming a manufacturing hub in the health sector.  The Pandemic has provided an opportunity for Brussels to review and adjust its value chains. Increasing supply security of critical health goods can facilitate the EU against economic coercion, which is where the Indo-Pacific dimension could help the partnership between India and the EU.    

 

Conclusion

 

The changing tides of the oceans necessitates a greater role for the India-EU partnership. A stronger India-EU partnership must emphasise on innovate and enterprising developmental agenda that aligns with the respective Indo-Pacific strategies of both the players. This will also create further partnerships in the region and will define the developmental outcomes of multiple players in the Indo-Pacific. The pandemic has given an opportunity for both the players to revive their strategic priorities and, both the players must take the opportunity to catalyse the partnership for a resilient Indo-Pacific.

 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are personal.