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Countering China: EU-India growing ties in the Indo-Pacific

Dost Muhammad Barrech talks about India and EU's growing interests in the Indo-Pacific region and how they are developing strategies to counter China's influence in the region. He further talks about how India is diversifying its strategic engagements and mending former strained ties and is no longer willing to work under the US's shell.

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The European Union (EU) and India have been strategic partners since 2004, focusing more on stepping up the economic ties in the contemporary connected world. The EU is fully cognizant of the strategic importance of the Indo-Pacific and views New Delhi as a crucial player in the region.

In its Indo-Pacific Strategy, Brussels pays much attention to the consolidation of its relations with India and considers it a key partner “in pursuing its security interests, promotion of effective multilateralism, growth and prosperity in the Asian region and tackling global challenges”. Its inclination towards India intensifies due to the latter’s strategic location; having a wide coastline of 7500 km. On top of that, India has formidable maritime military capabilities.

Read more: India at loss as Indo-Pacific strategy collapses

Although geographically Europe is not a part of the Indo-Pacific, its massive trade with Asian economies passes via the important chokepoints of the Indo-Pacific region. A threat to crucial sea lanes as well as to the flow of commerce and energy, by and large, will have a direct impact on the EU’s security and economic interests.

The EU-India Economic ties

Trade and economics continue to be the key pillar of the EU-India partnership and under the EU’s Generalised System of Preferences (GSP), India remains the main beneficiary of preferential tariffs for its exports, reducing import duties for nearly 66 percent of product tariff lines, benefitting enormously from its numerous industrial sectors.

During 2019-20, India’s trade with the EU reached US$ 104.93 billion. Over the past two decades, Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) inflows from the EU to India culminated to US$ 109.55 billion. India has been the third-largest trading partner of the EU region.

In the last decade, trade in goods between the EU and India increased by 72%. Nearly 6,000 European companies are working in India, providing 1.7 million jobs directly and 5 million jobs indirectly to the Indians. The Global Strategy documents unveiled that “in light of the economic weight that Asia represents for the EUand vice versa … the EU will deepen its economic diplomacy in the region, working towards ambitious free trade agreements with strategic partners such as Japan and India”.

Read more: Biden urges ‘free and open’ Pacific in China counter

EU-India Strategic Convergence in Maritime Security

In order to thwart China’s growing naval prowess in the Indo-Pacific, the EU-India are looking forward to enhancing their foothold in the region. China’s Maritime Silk Road Strategy linking Europe with Southeast Asia via the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean has forced both Brussels and India to get into introspection and ponder over maritime security challenges.

NewDelhi’s perception vis-à-vis Brussels has witnessed essential changes. First and foremost, India is no more willing to put all eggs in the US basket, instead, it is diversifying its strategic engagements which place Brussels as a bulwark against Beijing in the emerging geostrategic landscape of the Indo-Pacific region.

Secondly, at the domestic level, there is overwhelming advocacy supported by the Indian Navy to promote diplomatic ties with the EU.  Robust maritime security with the EU will inevitably decrease India’s excessive dependence on its traditional partner.

Read more: EU announces full support to Kashmir as European Parliament vice president makes India sleepless

The strategic convergence in maritime security of New Delhi and Brussels is also attributed to coping with foreseen and unforeseen challenges of non-traditional threats, terrorism, piracy, transnational organized crimes and illegal fishing. A strategic convergence in maritime security is aimed at promoting freedom of navigation resulting in providing maritime security to the region.

Since 2008, the two sides have accelerated cooperation in the area of anti-piracy and building capacity in the Western Indian Ocean. In January 2021, the inaugural India-EU Maritime Security Dialogue was held to seek mutual interests in maritime security.

The EU Connectivity Strategy in the Indo-Pacific

Connectivity is a prerequisite for economic growth for every country. The EU, thus, has an undue preoccupation with connectivity with the aim of enhancing trade partnerships. The EU-wide Indo-Pacific Strategy “believes that openness, prosperity, inclusiveness, sustainability, transparency, reciprocity and viability should be guiding principles in the cooperation with the Indo-Pacific region”. EU and India have taken an initiative to build joint infrastructure projects in the Indo-Pacific, Central Asia, and Africa that sought to oppose China’s BRI.

A fear of rising China forces India to negate a non-aligned position and seeks to for improved ties with Brussels. New Delhi acknowledges an emerging multi-alignment strategy and desires to build robust partnerships with developed economies such as the EU to further its geopolitical objectives.

The containment of China turns to be a buzzword in the Western discourse. A recent G-7 summit entirely revolved around China where Beijing’s plans were termed as a grave threat to global democracy.

Read more: How US Navy exposed the limits of Indo-US strategic cooperation

US President Joe Biden in his first overseas visit to Europetried to cajole the EU members to counter China. Beijing is being perceived as a threat by the US and its Western allies. The EU and India along with the US are unnecessarily wary of Chinese presence in the Indo-Pacific region.

The G-7 members would certainly underscore slogans of free and open Indo-Pacific, democratic norms, respect for human rights and rule of law metaphorically as means to target China. However, the EU needs to realize that China has become its top trading partner surpassing the US, while 18 countries of EU are the part of China’s BRI.

Moreover, China became India’s leading trade partner in 2020, and in the first five months of 2021, the trade between the two soared by more than 70%. Therefore, any plans to contain China are likely to be halted by economic realities.

Read more: Great Powers strategic competition in Indo-Pacific region

The writer is a research associate at India Study Centre, the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI). He is also Ph.D. (IR) candidate at International Islamic University Islamabad (IIUI). He can be reached at dostmuhammad@issi.org.pk. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.

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