EU-India: Seizing India’s maritime security moment

Written by Antoine Levesques on 15 June 2018

Photo credit: Fotolia

Playing to India’s ambitions to become a responsible ‘Indo-Pacific’ maritime power is now the safest bet on the way to building a truly ‘strategic’ partnership, writes Antoine Levesques.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 1 June speech at the IISS Shangri La Dialogue, Asia’s annual summit of defence ministers and security officials in Singapore, outlined India’s vision for a prosperous and secure India as a confident ‘Indo-Pacific’ rising power. The address marked India’s coming of age; its diplomatic, security and military outlook has now acquired irreversible maritime and naval dimensions. 

Modi set India’s security interests onto a new, larger canvas stretching from the west coast of the Americas to the eastern littoral of Africa - the area now growingly referred to as the ‘Indo-Pacific’. 

For three years, this outlook was implicit, lacking definition and consensus. Now that it is explicit and detailed, Modi’s vision hands a rare opportunity to the EU and India to advance their shared goals to promote peace and security.


High ambitions for India-EU ties were long frustrated by deep disagreements about EU market access for India’s trade or EU Kashmir positions. Four annual summits were suspended. Mistrust and low expectations put a heavy, low ceiling on their peace and security cooperation. But US President Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ trade agenda and China’s expectations-beating global footprint are driving a new EU-India momentum. 

Modi did not refer once to Europe or the EU in his Singapore speech. This matches India and the EU’s expectations of each other. However, for the first time in his speech, Modi infused his personal brand of ‘ruthless pragmatism’ overseas with a strong statement of principles bringing India closer than ever to the EU’s own ‘principled pragmatism’ compass adopted two years ago. 

India’s ‘Indo-Pacific’ vision is also compatible with the EU’s, especially regarding China. On 30 May the US military renamed its largest combatant command to ‘INDOPACOM’. The tag has raised eyebrows in Beijing for its containment of China undertones. 

But Modi’s speech finely balanced consideration of China. He omitted talking of grouping of Indian, US, Japanese and Australian officials, which met on 7 June, the second time in just over six months supporting a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’. 

Each for their own reasons India and the EU want to be on talking terms with China. China’s economy is almost five times larger than India’s. India and China are uneasy neighbours sharing a tense contested border, but currently enjoying a diplomatic reset. 

“No other relationship has as many layers as our relations with China”, Modi said. EU-China trade in goods is worth over US$1.5bn daily. Coincidently, the EU held its regular strategic dialogue in Beijing hours before Modi spoke. 

As India builds its naval capabilities, it will continue to prioritise its interests over the Indian Ocean’s 70m km2 rather than the Pacific’s 160m km2. Like the EU, India is unlikely to soon send patrol ships to challenge China’s claims in the South China Sea.

Modi’s speech cut out the priorities for next rounds of leadership- and diplomats-led India-EU engagements by year-end. Expert unofficial talks had outlined ideas which are now easier to prioritise. 

Efforts to enhance their maritime security convergence stand unprecedented chances of yielding new, practical results, compared to other areas such as counter-terrorism, cyber-security, peace-keeping or cooperation in Afghanistan.

India and the EU are already natural maritime partners, as respectively the largest resident security actor around the Indian Ocean and a benign global security actor. Modi’s speech invoked ‘security’ manifold, whilst only twice referring to ‘defence’ (despite addressing a defence ministers summit) and rejecting ‘dependence on force’ for dialogue.

The EU and India can now do more to help each other, as well as littoral and island states, ensure safe and open use of the oceans for trade and peaceful uses as “global commons” - words Modi uttered twice in his speech, while having omitted them in 2015 when he outlined India’s then-circumscribed ambition toward its more immediate maritime neighbourhood.

A must is to start a dedicated, annual maritime security dialogue with civilian senior policymakers, naval and security officials. The EU and India should be able to also actually cooperate - rather than just coordinate - efforts to help island states in the Indian Ocean (and possibly further east) access and use information to better oversee their sometimes vast maritime areas. 

Regarding data supply, the EU funds a ‘fusion centre’ in Madagascar; India’s navy operates one also, using its rapidly growing national means and a slew of recent bilateral information exchange agreements feeding its picture of non-military maritime traffic.

Other lower hanging fruit could be annualising and specialising naval exercises on the margins of India’s and the EU’s separate operational deployments since 2008 to prevent and interdict piracy in the north-western Indian Ocean. 

Modi highlighted the importance of multinational training in his speech. EU missions relying on member states’ officers uniquely provide this indirectly within a formal bilateral framework. New France-India military logistics ties could soon offer creative options for holding those benign exercises off France’s overseas territories in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

Building a leading maritime pillar in support of the EU and India’s peace and security priorities will not be easy. Post-Brexit, France will be India’s preferred EU member state partner on the matter.

Security cooperation can hardly drive an EU-India momentum by overcompensating for differences on trade. 

Besides counter-terrorism - convergence on which the EU and India are making progress - playing to India’s ambitions to become a responsible ‘Indo-Pacific’ maritime power is now the safest bet on the way to building a truly ‘strategic’ partnership. 

This article will feature in an upcoming speacial EU-India Parliament Magazine supplement, developed in association with PA International

About the author

Antoine Levesques is a  research associate for South Asia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)


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