Europe is India’s natural ally

 Macron, Modi, Europe, Strategic Studies, Merkel, Deutschland, Xi, Xinping, CHOGM

PM Modi with French President Macron

Angela Merkel finally took charge as Germany’s Chancellor last week after months of political negotiations. It took six months of fraught coalition building following last September’s federal elections to bring her back in her fourth term as chancellor though with a diminished majority. There are a lot of disappointed stakeholders around her which will make her work more difficult in the coming years precisely when she needs a lot of support for confronting a whole host of national and global challenges. The far-right Alternative für Deutschland has become the large opposition party in the Bundestag.

With the coronation of Xi Jinping as China’s ‘emperor’ for life and Vladimir Putin’s election in Russia for another six years, a new form of authoritarian political order is shaping up, challenging the liberal order like never before. And European liberal democracies do not seem at all prepared to take up the challenge.

This is being manifested in different ways. Britain and Russia are entangled these days in a dispute pertaining to an attack on a former Russian spy and his daughter on UK soil using a deadly nerve agent. After the UK expelled 23 Russian diplomats, Moscow responded with a tit-for- tat expulsion of British diplomats. The European Union has also supported British claim with an “unqualified solidarity with the United Kingdom in the face of this grave challenge to our shared security”. Moscow has denied any responsibility for the attack, arguing that the EU was following an “anti-Russian campaign launched by London”.

Russia’s ties with the US are also going downhill with a US Congressional Intelligence Committee just publishing a report concluding that Russian provocateurs meddled in the 2016 election. Washington is also claiming that Russia is now supporting and even supplying arms to the Taliban. This is something Russia has denied though it has admitted it has had talks with the insurgent group. It justified that on the basis of the shared opposition to the Islamic State group, which has been trying to establish a base in the north-east of Afghanistan.

Russia under Putin has been trying to resurrect itself as a global power though the underlying problems confronting the nations are quite substantial. It has a rather small economy and it doesn’t have much capacity to enhance its military budget. At a time when there is a revolutionary shift in energy markets with technological innovation in crude oil and natural gas production helping the US rival Russia as an energy supplier, Russia still remains deeply dependent on oil prices with about 80% of Russia’s exports still directly related to oil and gas. Moscow is trying to build a strategic relationship with China as a hedge against its complete isolation but there is a price to this relationship where China is the stronger partner.

India, of course, has a long standing relationship with Russia but that is undergoing a shift in light of rapidly evolving geopolitical realities. India’s ties with the larger Europe are also undergoing a change at a time when the European Union is struggling to come to terms with Brexit and multiple challenges to its internal cohesion. The recent visit of French President Emmanuel Macron to India has underlined a new sense of strategic resolve in European countries to reorient their ties with New Delhi.

Indian Ocean will be at the centre of Paris-Delhi engagement in the coming years after the two nations signed a key security accord for the Indian Ocean to counter China’s growing influence in the region. As part of this pact, India and France will open their naval bases to each other’s warships, a move which will have a far-reaching impact on the Indian Ocean balance of power.

At a time when France has indicated that it wants to be India’s favoured partner and New Delhi’s gateway to Europe and the European Union, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be in London next month to attend Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. There is a renewed British interest in the Commonwealth against the backdrop of its impending separation from the European Union. The government of Theresa May is making an effort to reconnect with its historic partners in the Commonwealth and the Anglosphere at a time when its traditional partners in Europe are renegotiating their terms of engagement with the UK. For India as leading power in the global order, the Commonwealth provides a platform to engage with a wide array of states across the world with relatively similar political cultures. As India moves to being a 10 trillion economy over the next two decades, it needs its own clubs and platforms, especially ones where China is not a member. Speaking in London Modi would like to get India’s voice and views heard across the Commonwealth as well as effectively underscore India’s case and position New Delhi as a leading player in the Commonwealth.

At a time when disillusionment with China is growing in Europe with questions being asked about the sustainability of the Belt and Road Initiative as well as about Chinese President Xi Jinping’s coronation for life, India should be a natural partner for Europe and New Delhi should be able to leverage new opportunities emerging in Europe. While growing tensions between Europe and Russia will certainly put a strain on Indian foreign policy, there is a need to reimage India-Europe ties, moving beyond clichés. As the traditional order comes under stress, the two liberal powers like Europe and India can craft a new narrative. But that would require a new vision and much greater leadership than we have seen in the recent past.


This commentary originally appeared in DNA.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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Harsh V. Pant

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