Indian Minister of Foreign Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar recently visited Athens for talks with his Greek counterpar. Photo: AFP / Kenzo Tribouill

The month of June has witnessed major strategic engagements between India and key European countries against the backdrop of the Indo-Pacific. The region continues to maintain an important place for Europe, especially at a time when the United States and China are deepening their competition for power and influence in the geographic space.

The challenge for European countries, however, is to contribute to the stability the region without having to come directly between the US and China. India thus serves as an important pillar in European Indo-Pacific policy due to its adherence to strategic autonomy and its interest in maintaining the rules-based order in the region.

Europe’s strategic calculus

The Indo-Pacific region continues to position itself at the forefront of global geopolitics. Home to rising great powers such as India and China, major middle powers like Japan and Australia, and the established great power, the US, the region has become an avenue for power competition against the backdrop of maintaining or revising the global rules-based order.

With this in mind, extra-regional powers, particularly in Europe, have been showing concern toward the geopolitical shifts in the Indo-Pacific region.

The region contains more than half of the world’s population and has abundant resources critical for development. It is also home to rapidly growing economies such as China, India, Japan, and Southeast Asia.

The region accounts for almost 40% of global gross domestic product. Another important feature of the Indo-Pacific is the burgeoning power competition between the US and China, which has significant implications not only for the region, but beyond as well.

This has become a cause of major concern for European countries given that the economies of both regions are closely interlinked with respect to global supply chains. Critical trading routes pass through the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. If major conflicts erupt, the fate of commerce will be in the hands of the competing parties. This would have adverse effects on global trade and economic development.

With so much at stake, key European countries such as France, Italy, Greece and Spain have inevitably shifted their attention toward the region.

However, for them to enhance their presence in the Indo-Pacific without getting squashed by the US-China power competition, it will be important to forge a robust strategic framework with major powers in the region that espouse a significant degree of strategic autonomy while remaining committed to democratic values of the rules-based order.

It is in this light that India continues to serve as a major pillar in the Indo-Pacific policy of major European powers.

Deepening India-Italy strategic relations

The India-Italy strategic partnership continues to be an important pillar in the overarching relations between India and the European Union. Last November, a virtual summit between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Italian counterpart Giuseppe Conte marked an important milestone in the bilateral relations between the two nations.

The two leaders discussed a wide array of economic and geopolitical issues centered in the Indo-Pacific. The results of the meeting were summarized in a Joint Declaration and Plan of Action, which sketched out priority areas in the bilateral partnership for the period 2020-2025.

Recently, Italian Ambassador to India Vincenzo De Luca said the two countries were working closely in vital strategic areas such as energy and defense. Moreover, De Luca highlighted that India and Italy shared the idea of an Indo-Pacific region that rested on common values and principles, rule of law, inclusive growth and an open and fair trade system.

Furthermore, on June 17, the secretary (East) of the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, Riva Ganguly Das, complemented De Luca’s remarks by stating that Europe’s interests in the Indo-Pacific are significantly similar to India’s own vision. In the same vein, Das urged countries like Italy to pave the way and support an India-centric European Union policy and strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.

Das further emphasized that “Europe’s embrace of the Indo-Pacific underlines the growing recognition of the region’s importance and unfolds new opportunities for cooperation with India.” The deepening of the India-Italy strategic partnership will allow more avenues to be established to solidify India-European relations in the Indo-Pacific.

Naval exercise in Gulf of Aden

Among other important developments that occurred this month, the maiden Indian Navy-EUNAVFOR (EU Naval Force) exercise took place in the Gulf of Aden from June 18-19. Five warships from four navies participated in the two-day exercise.

The Indian Navy deployed the INS Trikand for the exercise, while the other warships included the Italian Navy ship ITS Carabinere, the Spanish ship ESPS Navarra, and two French ships, FS Tonnerre and FS Surcouf.

According to Indian Navy spokesman Commander Vivek Madhwal, “The two-day exercise will see high-tempo naval operations at sea, including advanced air defense and anti-submarine exercises, cross-deck helicopter operations, tactical maneuvers, boarding operations, under-way replenishment, search and rescue and other maritime security operations.”

This collaborative exercise between key European countries and India demonstrated the significant convergence of strategic interest to maintain the stability and peace of the Indo-Pacific at a time when power shifts are altering the geopolitical landscape of the region. The efforts made by the four navies reflect their steadfast desire to operate as a collective force to promote, peace, security and stability in the region.

India-Greece strategic partnership

Another important dimension for India-EU relations is the burgeoning India-Greece strategic partnership.

Being a historic maritime power with the world’s largest registered commercial shipping fleet, Greece can take advantage of the opportunities that lie in the Indo-Pacific region. However, it will need to forge closer relations with key players in the region to outweigh the possible threats caused by the power competition between the US and China.

The region thus serves as a focal point where India and Greece can reinvigorate a vibrant political and economic partnership.

The visit of Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar to Athens last Friday, which marked the first visit to Greece by an Indian EAM since 2003, signaled a strong breakthrough in cementing the two countries’ strategic partnership.

As Jaishankar met with his Greek counterpart Nikon Dendias, they discussed the geopolitical and geo-economic dimensions of the Indo-Pacific and how there is a significant convergence between the two countries’ vision for a “free, open, inclusive and cooperative Indo-Pacific.”

Jaishankar also called on Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who stated that Greece and India adhere to the importance they attach to international law, the law of the sea and the principles of the United Nations.

Conclusion

The recent strategic engagements between European countries and India represent a step in the right direction for maintaining peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. Being major powers that adhere to democratic values, these countries seek to maintain the rules-based order at a time when the shifts in the distribution of power seem to challenge the stability of that very order.

European countries have a large stake in the Indo-Pacific. Cooperation with India thus serves as an important dimension for Europe to navigate the region effectively without directly provoking the volatile overarching power competition between the US and China. 

Don McLain Gill

Don McLain Gill is a resident fellow at the Manila-based International Development and Security Cooperation (IDSC) and the director for South Asia and Southeast Asia at the Philippine-Middle East Studies Association (PMESA). He is also a geopolitical analyst and an author.