Author : Ivan Lidarev

Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Sep 21, 2020

It is important to understand the historical background of the India-CEE relationship. At the beginning lay CEE’s interest in India’s brilliant ancient civilisation.

Central and Eastern Europe’s emerging view of India

How does Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) see India? For the last two decades the answer has been that CEE countries rarely look at India, but when they do, they see a rising power and a promising economic partner. Nevertheless, the last three years have seen the outbreak of a “Cold War” between the US and China, albeit one much different from the US-Soviet one, a “Cold War” in which India plays the role of a key geostrategic factor in the Indo-Pacific and an increasingly important partner for Washington. Hence a new question emerges: how have these developments affected the way CEE views India?

To answer this question, first it is important to understand the historical background of the India-CEE relationship. At the beginning lay CEE’s interest in India’s brilliant ancient civilisation. This interest was embodied in the founding of various Indological institutions in CEE universities, such as the Sanskrit Chair in the prestigious Charles University in Prague in 1850, and the deep fascination with Indian religion and culture of leading CEE intellectuals, such as Romanian scholar of religion Mircea Eliade and Polish linguist Andrzej Gawronski. Delhi’s partnership with Moscow during the Cold War inaugurated a new age of closer relations, during which CEE increasingly saw India as an important political partner. Economics followed politics and India emerged as CEE’s leading trade partner in the developing world by the 1980s. During this period Delhi fostered particularly close ties with Poland, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia, the last a key Indian partner in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) founded in Belgrade in 1961.

"Economics followed politics and India emerged as Central and Eastern Europe’s (CEE) leading trade partner in the developing world by the 1980s."

The Post-Cold War period has seen the gradual emergence of a new relationship between India and CEE. While the fall of the Berlin Wall resulted in a lost decade for India-CEE relations, from which political ties have not recovered yet, India’s fast economic development during the last twenty years has restored Delhi’s economic ties with the CEE, although they remain relatively small and well below their potential. Bilateral trade has risen to about $6 billion, as has bilateral investment, with some large investment projects such as Apollo Tyres’ $557-million greenfield facility in Hungary. Poland, CEE’s largest economy, has emerged as India’s leading economic partner in the region, with about $3 billion of total Indian investment in Poland and about $672 million of total Polish investment in India. Beyond economics, the growing flow of Indian tourists to Prague and Budapest, Bollywood’s frequent movie shootings in Bulgaria and high-level visits, such as President Kovind’s 2018 trip to the region, have raised India’s profile in CEE. As a result of all this, CEE has come to see India as a distant but increasingly important rising power and an economic partner with great potential.

On this background, how has the new “Cold War” between Washington and Beijing affected CEE’s view of India? The short answer is that it is still unclear. CEE has not yet fully come to terms with this “Cold War” that emerged only recently while the region’s attention was fixed on tensions between Russia and the West. Just as important, neither NATO nor the EU have fully formulated a clear, coherent policy toward China to guide its CEE members, although both have recently become tougher on Beijing, with the EU describing Beijing as a “systemic rival” and NATO speaking of China “challenges.” In addition, CEE countries do not yet see India as a major player in this new “Cold War,” partly because of insufficient familiarity with Indo-Pacific geopolitics, but also because Delhi is yet to unambiguously align itself in the unfolding conflict.

"How has the new “Cold War” between Washington and Beijing affected CEE’s view of India? The short answer is that it is still unclear."

Nevertheless, the new Sino-American “Cold War” is likely to affect the way CEE sees India in three ways. First, CEE is increasingly likely to see India as a partial economic counterweight to China. Of course, India cannot offer CEE what China can. However, with growing American and EU pressure to limit Chinese investment in infrastructure and telecommunications and cooling enthusiasm for China and its 17+1 mechanism, CEE is beginning to see India as a safer, easier economic partner than China. Poland’s recent moves to open a Mumbai branch of its investment agency and a direct air link between Warsaw and Delhi, amidst deteriorating relations with China, are first signs of this trend. Second, under US influence Central and Eastern European countries are more likely to view India as a fellow democracy. While CEE does not approach international relations from an ideological perspective and has its own problems with democratic governance, the new “Cold War” inevitably underlines the region’s democratic bond with India and its dissimilarity with communist China. Moreover, recent Czech and Lithuanian activism on Taiwan in the face of Chinese pressure suggests that supporting fellow democracies in Asia is becoming more popular in CEE. Third, countries in CEE are increasingly likely to see India as a potential geopolitical partner. The reasons for this are a combination between US’s progressively closer strategic partnership with India-CEE still takes its cue on security and strategy from Washington- and the hardening of EU and NATO’s positions on China. If after its ongoing China policy review NATO becomes more active in the Indo-Pacific, CEE members are likely to seek greater strategic engagement with India.

These three nascent trends promise to change how CEE sees India. They also present Delhi with a great opportunity to build a closer relationship with the region. Such a relationship would offer India support for its bid for a permanent seat at the UNSC, economic opportunities, and the goodwill of a large group of EU countries that influence the union’s policy. However, Delhi can also miss this opportunity, as many years of largely passive Indian policy toward the region suggest. In short, the new Cold War offers India an opportunity in Central and Eastern Europe, but to tap it Delhi needs to up its game.

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Ivan Lidarev

Ivan Lidarev

Ivan Lidarev is a former advisor at Bulgarias National Assembly and former Visiting Fellow at ORF.

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