Author : Swati Prabhu

Expert Speak Atlantic Files
Published on Apr 27, 2021
Envisioning an India-EU development partnership in the Indo-Pacific

Since 1994 when New Delhi and Brussels first decided to forge their paths through a strategic partnership, India-EU summits have consistently piqued the strategic curiosity of many. After much anticipation, ahead of the 16th edition of the summit, the EU finally adopted its Indo-Pacific Strategy. Although Brussels appears keen towards deepening its engagement, it involves a gamut of stakes and a multitude of challenges. What does EU’s Indo-Pacific Strategy mean for India? Could it possibly translate into a joint EU-India development partnership on the SDGs?

EU’s choppy strategy on Indo-Pacific

First, the EU’s role in the Indo-Pacific has been peripheral owing to its internal incoherence which explains the delay in releasing an official strategy unlike France, Germany, or the Netherlands. Considering the evolving security landscape, Europe is aware that both connectivity and partnerships play a critical role as the spotlight transitions from ‘hard’ to ‘soft’ elements. Painting the European Commission in a geopolitical hue, President Leyen knows that increasing EU’s global footprint will help Brussels gain formidable traction in the global order. Moreover, EU’s development policy and its strategic stances in the Indo-Pacific must be seen from the prism of a shared competence between the Commission and its 27 member states.

Second, embracing the Indo-Pacific whole-heartedly as an exciting geopolitical construct did not come naturally to EU. Due to its distant geographical location, the Indo-Pacific received less spotlight from the policymakers in Brussels. From a maritime perspective, the EU has a meagre presence here. Its existence is seen as French and British territories and military stations. Brexit has further diminished this. Furthermore, since the concept of Indo-Pacific is reviewed by Beijing as anti-China, Brussels was wary to adopt a strategy hurriedly. Although the EU is critical of some of the Chinese policies in this region, the last EU-China summit turned out to be a damp squib. Hence, it appears that Brussels waited for an opportune moment to reveal its cards in the Indo-Pacific by not siding with either the USA or China. The strategy continues the trend of not indulging in any blame game or name shame. Also, the strategy exhibits EU’s keenness on engaging with China through the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment. In the same breath, it also talks of exploring and expanding economic relations with India, underscoring a new sense of realism dawning on Brussels concerning geopolitics. The EU strategy also aims at bridging the divide with Washington on the China challenge. In fact, gradual disillusionment with Beijing has resulted in Brussels toughening up its position as it slowly embraces a new sense of realism in its geopolitical game.

A joint India-EU development partnership

Although India and EU are placed at different tangents of development, a collaborative canvas can be painted by the two in the Indo-Pacific. First, with a decade left for Agenda 2030, the pandemic has precipitated massive pressure towards the attainment of the SDGs. Reiterating its commitment towards a rules-based global order, EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy targets the promotion of SDGs as a crucial bridge between the socio-economic and political tangents of development. As an emerging development partner, New Delhi has been making key forays in Myanmar, Indonesia, and also with the ASEAN nations. In fact, partnerships will play a pivotal role in laying the foundation of a level-playing field towards sustainable development, as has been rightly identified by EU’s strategy.

Second, the global discontentment against the Chinese regime. In 2019, though the EU tagged Beijing as a ‘systemic rival’ and a ‘strategic competitor’, the Germans held a neutral stance. As China’s biggest trading partner, it cannot close its doors on Beijing. In fact, Berlin’s Indo-Pacific Policy is not directed towards curbing the Chinese bulwark—it is more of a China plus policy. Interestingly, in 2018 when Wang Yi, the Chinese Foreign Minister lampooned ‘Indo-Pacific’ being utilized instead of ‘Asia-Pacific’, as an ‘attention-grabbing idea’ that will ‘dissipate like ocean foam’, President Macron countered it by introducing Indo-Pacific in the French foreign policy. The Netherlands stated how the Indo-Pacific should not be reduced as a ‘plaything between the great powers’. The Dutch policy reiterated the unwavering souring of European attitude towards Beijing; something which is amiss in the German Indo-Pacific policy.  This could very well work in India’s favour, given its skirmishes with China whether on border issues or the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Despite their conflicting stances on Beijing, the EU’s development policy in the Indo-Pacific aligned with India’s development agenda on trade, technology and climate change can open a new space of engagement for New Delhi giving it a fresh momentum against China.

Third, as EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy appeases both China and India, it is also an attempt to expand its geopolitical footprint in the region. Being the world’s largest provider of development assistance, Brussels can bring three essential things in the Indo-Pacific: resources, norms and expertise. When it comes to standards, Europe is by far the best in data protection, environmental protocols, safety guidelines and transparency. These elements will facilitate in bolstering EU’s traction, especially on the SDGs. According to its Connectivity Strategy with Asia, Brussels is keen on strengthening networks in transport, energy, digital, and human dimension countering Beijing’s BRI. Also, New Delhi’s position on BRI has shaped the global normative discourse which has been appropriated by the EU. These principles can possibly form the basis of their engagement in the third countries. The International Solar Alliance (ISA) is a case in point. Under the ISA, India’s One Sun One World One Grid (OSOWOG) ambitious project intends to connect 140 countries through a common grid to transfer solar power. With Germany specializing in manufacturing high-quality solar panels, a joint initiative between EU and India in OSOWOG can construct a competitive axis towards BRI.

Although scepticism looms large in the Indian policy circles over a triangular cooperation involving the EU in a third country, it is a chance worth taking. A development partnership between New Delhi and Brussels in the Indo-Pacific could facilitate a cooperative and sustainable dialogue in the coming years.

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Swati Prabhu

Swati Prabhu

Dr Swati Prabhu is Associate Fellow with the Centre for New Economic Diplomacy at the Observer Research Foundation. Her research explores the interlinkages between development ...

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