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Is Europe Out of Sync with India — and Asia?

The progress in co-operation between the United States and India during the last decade has been quite extraordinary writes Hans Kundnani . Admittedly, problems remain in the relationship and there are limits as to how far it can go — in particular because of the ongoing (though declining) resonance of the Indian ideas of “non-alignment” and strategic autonomy. But it is clear that the United States sees India in strategic terms and in particular wants India to play a role in balancing against China.

The question is, do Europeans? Should they? Europeans find it difficult to give a clear answer to these problems. European cooperation with India is much narrower in terms of scope — it is focused almost exclusively around trade liberalization — and slower in terms of progress. This was apparent at the German Marshall Fund’s India Trilateral Forum in September, an event that brought together academics, policymakers, and think tankers from Europe, India, and the United States.

The central question is whether it is in the European interest for China to become a regional hegemon in Asia. For many Europeans, especially policymakers, thinking in terms like “hegemony” and “balancing” seems zero-sum and anachronistic. As a result, in discussions about international politics in Asia, there is often a disconnect between Americans and Asians on one hand and Europeans on the other. Rightly or wrongly, Europeans are out of sync.

The question of whether Europeans should want India to play a role in balancing against China is not merely a theoretical one. Rather, it has important policy implications. In particular, it has implications for the question of European arms exports to Asian countries. It is often said that, with the possible exception of France and the United Kingdom, Europeans are not significant security actors in Asia. But one way Europeans could make a contribution to regional security is through the selective transfer of weapons, and in particular of high-end military technology, to Asian countries. India has bought weapons from several EU member states, including Scorpene-class submarines and Rafale fighter jets from France and Type 209 submarines from Germany. However, it is not clear whether such sales are strategically or merely commercially motivated.

Cooperation with India on military technology could also support EU policy toward Russia. Going back to the 1960s, India has overwhelmingly depended on Russia for weapons systems. But by continuing to purchase Russian arms, India is not only backfilling Western sanctions but also propping up the Russian arms industry. Indians have long complained that they have no choice but to buy weapons from Russia because the West is not prepared to share advanced military technology with them. But while the United States is working hard to overcome this problem — it has even set up a Joint Working Group on Aircraft Carrier Cooperation, which met for the first time in Washington in August — Europeans are way behind. For example, the breakdown of negotiations with the EU over the sharing of source codes for the Galileo satellite navigation system led India to join Russia’s alternative, GLONASS.

A second area for possible EU-India cooperation is the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). China is the largest shareholder in the newly formed bank, with 26 percent of the voting rights. But in the absence of Japan and the United States, which declined to become founding members, India is the second-largest shareholder, with 7.5 percent of the voting rights. It is thus a pivotal player in the bank. Europeans collectively have around 20 percent of the voting rights (Germany, with 4 percent, is the fourth-largest shareholder). The arithmetic of voting rights means that the EU and India could be a powerful voice in the AIIB and could even form a blocking minority were they to cooperate. But whether the EU and India will be able to co-operate in this way depends on whether they can develop a shared agenda in the AIIB.

This in turn depends on how the EU and India view China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) set of infrastructure projects across Eurasia, which the AIIB is partly meant to finance. In particular, do they see it a public good, as China presents it, or as a strategic project that could alter the balance of power in Asia. Both the EU and India are taking a wait-and-see approach to the project. But while Indians understand that OBOR could be a potential threat to them — hemming them in while allowing China to build military capabilities in India’s neighborhood — Europeans tend to see it simply as an economic opportunity. If Europeans want India to care about European security and recognize threats to them, they must also care about Asian security and recognize threats to India.

Hans Kundnani is a senior transatlantic fellow with the German Marshal Fund (GMF)’s Europe program, based in Berlin. This article was first published by the GMF.

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