The challenge for Middle Powers like India, France and Germany

After his meeting with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1960, French President Charles de Gaulle famously declared, “the strength and stability of India are essential for peace and tranquillity in South Asia”. At a time when the United States was busy befriending Pakistan and showing little interest in investing in India, German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer decided to fund the establishment of the now world-famous Indian Institutes of Technology. The roots of India’s relations with these continental European powers go deep, however they have been shaped by the Cold War. It is, therefore, not surprising that the revival of old East-West tensions has cast a shadow on India’s relations with the European Union.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to European capitals should help both sides acquire a better understanding of each other’s security concerns. Whether it will fundamentally alter equations remains to be seen. As “Middle Powers”, countries like France, Germany and India should seek policy space for themselves and not be forced into taking positions by the Big Powers — the United States, China and Russia.

The EU is understandably concerned about Russian aggressiveness in Europe. India is equally concerned about Chinese aggressiveness in Asia. Will such shared concerns provide the basis for a new India-EU equation? Are EU leaders ready to widen de Gaulle’s frame and delete the word “south” from that sentence? The jury is out on that question despite all the hype and hoopla around Modi’s Europe yatra.

Even after Russia has sought to tear down the post-Cold War security structure in Europe, India has stayed the course in its equations both with Russia and the European Union. Both sides may be dissatisfied with India, but that has been India’s lot in the post-colonial era. India is not out to please anyone, it has and will continue to seek a global environment conducive to its own economic development and one that will acknowledge its civilisational contribution to humanity.

While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the context in which Modi visited Europe and the head of the European Union India, the fact is that the agenda at bilateral meetings with individual European countries has generally been very different from the agenda that the EU prefers to focus on. While individual European nations, especially Germany and France, focus on their own strategic and business interests, including defense equipment sales, the EU retains the remit for negotiating trade and investment rules.

This division of national and group agendas has often posed a problem for India because individual countries cannot offer bilateral market access in exchange for bilateral defense deals. So, while Chancellor Scholz and President Macron were talking up their bilateral relations with India, the Dutch ambassador in India reminded his interlocutors that the EU is unlikely to settle for a “tariff-only” trade agreement that would avoid the policy bumps posed by EU ence on inclusion of labor, environment and social issues stating, “We as Europeans think that you cannot isolate trade from some of the very relevant dimensions connected to trade.”

So the French will sell Rafale jets in the name of strategic partnership but they cannot offer a trade and investment deal that Brussels will not allow Paris to strike with India. After all, the Europeans constructed the EU to deal with external competition from rising Asia. In fact, the EU Single Market project was devised as a defensive response to the rise of an aggressively export-oriented Japan. While the EU and G7 may now wish to derisk, if not decouple, from aggressively rising China, how much they would be able to do in this regard and what they would be willing to do to help a slowly rising India remains to be seen.

In short, even as Europe worries about Russia, and India worries about China, it is still not clear what the two can and would do for each other, despite all the talk about partnership across Eurasia and Indo-Pacific. If Prime Minister Modi’s meetings these past few days have given a better understanding on this then they would have served a purpose beyond the photo-ops.

For India’s part, it is not clear at the moment how much and what it can unilaterally offer Europe beyond the promise of standing up to China or reducing dependence on Russia. Surely that alone cannot be the foundation of a new strategic partnership unless Europe in turn is willing to expand de Gaulle’s perspective from just South Asia to Asia as a whole. That is the challenge for the three middle powers. Can they combine their “strength and stability” to ensure “peace and tranquillity” in their respective neighborhoods? Or, will they continue to look over their shoulders at big powers lurking behind in seeking to stabilise and shape the global order?

If middle powers like Brazil, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Africa and others can work together they may well be able to impose some discipline on the three big powers — China, Russia and the US. By their irresponsible behavior over the past decade all three big powers have opened up space for the middle powers to want to act. However, the latter can act only if they have the imagination and will to do so. Have Macron, Modi and Scholz even considered this possibility, or will they all remain within familiar grooves, allowing the big powers to recklessly and unilaterally set the global geopolitical and geo-economic agendas?

Tailpiece: Many in the media have dutifully interpreted Scholz’s invitation to Modi to the G7 summit in Germany as a special gesture. Fact is, India has been invited along with four other countries, including Indonesia and Senegal. More to the point, such invitations to G7 summits have come India’s way since 2003 when Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee became the first PM to be so invited, along with counterparts from China, Brazil and South Africa. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh not only attended several G7 summits but also threatened not to attend one in Germany when Angela Merkel tried to reduce the time allotted for G7 interaction with guest country leaders.

The writer is a policy analyst

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