India as the global swing state: implications for Europe

Europe's World

Asia & Emerging Economies

Picture of Patryk Kugiel
Patryk Kugiel

Senior Analyst at the Polish Institute of International Affairs and member of the Europe-India Research and Dialogue Network (EIRDN)

The upcoming EU-India Summit in Brussels will be observed with great attention and high expectations in both Asia and Europe.

In the three years since the last such summit, the domestic and international contexts for both parties have changed considerably. Last year’s elections in Europe and India gave a strong mandate for a new ‘geopolitical’ European Commission and Indian Prime Minister Modi to move the relationship forward.

Moreover, with uncertainty regarding US policy and mounting global tensions, many in Brussels and Delhi would like to see the European Union and India serve as ‘like-minded partners’ and indispensable allies in protecting the rules-based global order.

This overly optimistic expectation ignores, however, the larger picture of India’s international role.

Despite important changes in Indian foreign policy since 2014, it is still driven by the idea of “strategic autonomy”

Several years ago, American political scientists Daniel Kliman and Richard Fontaine labeled India one of the ‘global swing states,’ which, like swing states in the US presidential elections, offer the most ‘return on investment’ simply because they have not decided yet to which side (West or the Rest) they will swing internationally.

Many have looked to the Modi government’s engagement with the US, scepticism towards Russia, and growing tensions with China as indication that India has already swung towards the West. That, however, is a mistaken interpretation.

Despite important changes in Indian foreign policy since 2014, it is still driven by the idea of “strategic autonomy” – an independent foreign policy that is committed to maximising attainment of national interests. Though Modi abandoned the Cold War era policy of ‘non-alignment,’ that does not mean that he has suddenly embraced a strategy of re-alignment.  As Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar famously put it at the 2019 Raisina Dialogue conference in Delhi, if India is pushed to pick sides in US-China confrontation, it would take “its own side”.

Hence, despite growing ties with the West, India purchased a Russian S-400 missile system, continued to boost engagement with other BRICS countries and tried to rebuild trust with China.

Though India cannot be a formal ally of Europe it is still an indispensable partner on many key issues

India is the global swing state. And this has strategic implications for the European Union.

First, given the realities of international politics, the EU relationship with India must first of all be based on interests. The EU’s approach cannot be naïve or overestimate the normative bond of two of the largest democracies. Common values may help in mutual understanding, but it is shared interests that make true partnerships.

Though India cannot be a formal ally of Europe it is still an indispensable partner on many key issues.

Whether it is strengthening regional order in Asia or maritime security in the Indian Ocean, or building stability in Afghanistan, the EU and India are mostly on the same page. They share both threats assessments (be it on terrorism, climate change, trade protectionism, or some of China’s policies) and global goals (sustainable connectivity, multilateralism, reform of the UN, stability in Middle East to name a few). These offer a lot of space for a much closer strategic cooperation than is the case today.

European policy towards India must not only be grounded in realism but should be characterised by more generosity

Yet, one must remember there are also real historical, economic or political differences between the two blocs which will continue to cause divergences on a number of issues. And there are plenty of additional ideological and normative challenges looming on the horizon.

Since forming its second government last year, several of Modi’s decisions (i.e. lockdown of Kashmir, citizenship law) have raised eyebrows among many Europeans who might have looked towards India as a fellow exemplar of liberal democracy. The European Parliament made special effort to avoid voting on a resolution in February 2020 condemning India’s internal decisions, so as not to derail the Summit. Yet, India’s turn towards more hard-line nationalistic politics demands a smart reaction from Europe.

In its approach towards India, the EU should also consider how India’s role as “global swing power”, along with its increasing economic might, will impact the international system. Stronger cooperation with India will be crucial for addressing global challenges and establishing new rules and institutions.

Hence, and second, European policy towards India must not only be grounded in realism but should be characterised by more generosity. In this asymmetrical relationship, it is still the EU which has leverage in terms of economic potential, technological edge, diplomatic skills and global influence.

European leaders heading towards the Summit may remember that a democratic, stable and developing India is in the best interest of the EU and the world at large

Therefore, it is up to the stronger partner – the EU – to display some “strategic altruism” and move beyond the principle of reciprocity in the relationship. That means the EU may need to offer more flexibility and concessions in bilateral relations (i.e. free trade area negotiations) for the sake of larger long-term benefits. India must be convinced that its interests will be better served by siding with Europe.

In the end, European leaders heading towards the Summit may remember that a democratic, stable and developing India is in the best interest of the EU and the world at large. As the EU seeks to implement its 2018 Strategy on India, it is important to remember that an India that fails would be a disaster for its immediate region and far beyond.

It is also why many in Europe are so terribly concerned by the mounting internal tensions in India and increasing pressures on its democratic structures.

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