Seizing the moment: the EU and India as security partners

Europe's World

Asia & Emerging Economies

Picture of Emil Liden
Emil Liden

Associate Fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs (UI)

Today, the leaders of the European Union and India will meet for a summit via video conference. This summit, like many others, was postponed in March due to the coronavirus. Amidst this pandemic it has become ever clearer that there is a global leadership vacuum. With the combination of China’s rise and the United States’ seeming ambivalence about its global role, there is an underlying logic to stronger EU-India cooperation. Indeed, in the last few years, both have made ambitious joint statements to support a rules-based international order as well as global peace and security.

But when it comes to, for example, concrete EU-India security cooperation, there is little to show for this. Now should be the moment to act. But where to start? As highlighted in a recent policy brief, the EU and India could begin by cooperating in their shared neighbourhood: Africa.

India and Europe have an abiding interest in this continent. Whether it is conflicts fuelling migration, international terrorism or pirates threatening critical trade routes, both parties are affected by African peace and security.

Clearly, contemporary geopolitical developments are also playing a central role in Africa, with major powers competing for influence and partnerships. China’s role is fast increasing as an economic and security actor. While Chinese investment is largely welcomed across the continent, there are fears of ‘debt trap diplomacy’ with African governments taking on large liabilities under opaque arrangements. The threat of being side-lined by China has in part prompted other actors such as the EU, the US, Japan and India to step up their own partnerships with Africa. Combined EU-India efforts could provide the continent with a strong, viable alternative.

The EU and India could use the upcoming summit to set out a Joint Vision for the Indian Ocean

Needless to say, serious security challenges persist in Africa. The fallout from the pandemic might exacerbate existing issues. African countries, especially through the efforts of the African Union, have long invested in the capacity to better deal with these security challenges – “African solutions to African problems.” However, there is still a need for outside support.

There are three areas where the EU and India could make a difference together.

First, the EU and India both have significant, albeit different, experiences of peace support operations in Africa. The EU has conducted several military and civilian missions of its own, while India is the world’s largest troop contributor to UN peacekeeping. If both sides combined efforts, they could boost African capacity by training African personnel. EU funding could also help get important projects off the ground and Indian personnel could be seconded to EU missions.

Second, on and off the coasts of Africa – especially in the Indian Ocean – the EU and India have important vested interests and significant engagement. Here, they could use the upcoming summit to set out a Joint Vision for the Indian Ocean. If they align politically, their collective weight would be significant. They should also ramp up joint anti-piracy cooperation, which they have already started on a small scale. And they should combine efforts to build the capacity of African states along the littoral by training naval officers, coast guards, and customs officials.

Both the EU and India have an interest in offering alternatives

Third, cyber security is an area of growing concern both globally and in Africa. Africa faces many of the same challenges as the rest of the world, such as cybercrime, disinformation, and hate speech online. However, African capacity to deal with these concerns is generally low. Some African governments have turned to China, which is sharing its experience of digital surveillance, raising concern in certain societies.

Again, both the EU and India have an interest in offering alternatives. And African civil society is presumably interested in other options as well. The EU and India share, in broad terms, a commitment to an open, free, and secure cyberspace. Working together they could share know-how to support African institutions and strategies for cyber security. They could also engage in dialogue on issues around security and privacy online, and data regulation.

In sum, joint Indo-EU efforts to build African capacity would make an important contribution to security, while also offering African countries an alternative to partnering with China. Additionally, operational security cooperation could strengthen EU-India political dialogue and increase their strategic partnership in many other areas.

If the EU and India are serious about being partners for security, now is a good time to start, and Africa is a good place to do so.

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