New Delhi’s active approach with Brussels and London illustrates that the Indo-Pacific region is becoming a hotbed of activity for all stakeholders now and in the future.
India’s virtual summit with the UK on 4 May was followed by a hybrid summit with the European Union (EU) four days later in Porto, Portugal. Whereas the India-UK summit sought to deepen defence and security ties, the India-EU summit attempted to strengthen foreign policy and security relations, especially in the Indo-Pacific region. This was not surprising as defence cooperation is primarily carried out in a bilateral format by individual member states of the EU, not by the EU itself.
The formal statements that followed the prime ministers Narendra Modi-Boris Johnson summit agreed to enhance defence and security cooperation, welcomed the conclusion of a new defence logistics MoU, sought to increase maritime co-operation in the western Indian Ocean and agreed to work together to support India’s indigenous development of the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) (Mark 2). These were further highlighted as one of five key ‘pillars’ of a bold and ambitious India-UK Roadmap to 2030, a first for both countries, to elevate their bilateral relationship to a ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’.
India’s hybrid summit with the EU, with Modi’s virtual participation, was the first held with all 27 member states (along with the Presidents of the European Council and the European Commission); this format had taken place once earlier between the EU and US president Joe Biden in March 2021. Foreign policy and security cooperation were one of three key thematic areas addressed. They sought to enhance cooperation between the Indian navy and EU NAVFOR (EU Naval Force) Operation Atalanta in the Indo-Pacific region, welcomed the imminent conclusion of the working arrangement between Europol and India’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to prevent and fight terrorism and organised crime, hailed the holding of the inaugural India-EU dialogue on maritime security (in January 2021) and expressed a desire to explore negotiations for a framework partnership agreement on security and defence.
Neither of these summits had any ‘big ticket’ announcement on defence or international security; these were reserved primarily for trade and connectivity issues.
India and the UK launched an enhanced trade partnership to pave the way towards a Free Trade Agreement and more than doubling of trade by 2030. India and the EU announced their decision to resume negotiations for the Broad-based Trade and Investment Agreement (BTIA) after a gap of eight years (this had stalled in 2013), begin talks on a standalone investment protection agreement and launched an ambitious ‘Connectivity Partnership’. This was not surprising, as the EU is India’s largest trading partner, the second-largest destination for Indian exports and the first foreign investor in India. Meanwhile, with a population of almost 1.4 billion people, bigger than that of the EU and US combined, India is the largest market the UK has committed to negotiating a trade deal.
Nonetheless, the evolving strategic environment provides a unique opportunity to strengthen and raise the visibility of India’s defence and international security ties with both the UK and the EU. The UK’s post-Brexit foreign policy tilt to the Indo-Pacific and its defence focus on a “maritime partnership” with India provides a convergence of interests with India’s outreach to foreign naval forces as a potential ‘counter-weight’ to China and its re-engagement with the UK after nearly five year of its domestic political wrangling over Brexit. In a joint op-ed prior to the summit, Modi and Portuguese prime minister António Costa (the president of the Council of the EU and the EU’s first prime minister of Indian-origin) stated confidently that India’s role as a major regional and global player was set to continue to expand over the coming years, and a strengthened partnership would offer Europe an opportunity to diversify relations in a strategic region of the world.
The Indo-Pacific region will be the principal theatre of engagement with India for both the UK and the EU. Not surprisingly, the UK and EU have almost identical language on their shared vision with India of “an open, free, inclusive and rules-based Indo-Pacific region, underpinned by respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty, rule of law, transparency, freedom of navigation and overflight in the international seas, unimpeded lawful commerce, and peaceful resolution of disputes”.
But, unlike the UK, France, Germany and the Netherlands have full-fledged policies towards the Indo-Pacific. Three weeks prior to the India-EU summit, the EU launched its long-awaited new ‘Strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific’ (on 16 April), for the geographical region stretching from the east coast of Africa to the Pacific Island States. This strategy sought to reinforce its strategic focus, presence and actions in the Indo-Pacific region to contribute to regional stability, security, prosperity and sustainable development, at a time of rising challenges and tensions. At last year’s India-EU summit in July 2020, a five-year roadmap was launched. In November 2018, the EU had launched its vision for an ambitious strategy to strengthen cooperation and its ‘strategic partnership’ with India (replacing its previous 2004 strategy towards India). Crucially, this recognised that India played an “important geopolitical role” in Asia, not just as a trade partner, although the Indo-Pacific region was left out of this strategy.
India now has four strategic partnerships in Europe, with the earliest being with France since 1998, followed by Germany in 2001 and the EU and the UK since 2004. Among all European countries, France has the strongest bilateral strategic partnership with India, comprising defence (air and naval), space and nuclear ties. France’s defence share of India’s defence market is over 18% today, in contrast to less than 2% for the UK and 1.7% for Germany.
In March 2018, India and France published a ‘Joint Strategic Vision of India-France Cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region’ and signed a defence logistics agreement “for the provision of reciprocal logistics support between their Armed Forces”. As part of this agreement, in February 2020, India carried out its first joint patrol with France from Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean, with an Indian Navy P-8I maritime patrol aircraft deployed with French Navy personnel onboard.
Both sides hold regular joint military exercises: Varuna (navy); Shakti (army); and Garuda (air force); the 19th edition of exercise Varuna was held in April 2021, when France’s Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier strike group exercised with the Indian navy in the Arabian sea. In November 2019, the French navy became the first to post a Liaison Officer at India’s Information Fusion Centre – Indian Ocean Region in Gurgaon, near Delhi. France currently chairs the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) (2020-22); it became a full member of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) in December 2020.
For India, the opportunities for defence and international security ties with the UK and the EU need to be further highlighted and encouraged amidst an increasingly assertive China in the Indo-Pacific region. New Delhi may well attempt to leverage these relationships to seek maximum advantage from both. But, instead, it needs to think strategically to seek their collective advantages. This could include the establishment of a new ‘quad’-type of arrangement for the Indian Ocean among India, the US, UK and France, thereby ensuring the participation of three of five permanent members of the UN Security Council.