Take a map and draw a straight line from New Delhi to Brussels, where Prime Minister Manmohan Singh attended the annual European Union (EU)-India Summit on 10 December. The line cuts through a swathe of international trouble-spots: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and the Caucasus.
Now trace the sea routes running from India to Europe, skirting the Gulf, Somalia (assuming that you can get past the pirates), Yemen and Sudan. India and the EU sit on either side of the most unstable regions on the planet. They should have a lot to discuss.
Yet, to nobody’s surprise, the Brussels summit skipped some of these issues and soft-pedalled others. One day, the challenges in Central Asia, the Middle East and the Horn of Africa may push the EU into a real strategic dialogue with India. That day just wasn’t Friday the 10th.
The summit was not useless. It resulted in a joint declaration on international terrorism full of good, if cautiously-worded, ideas on cooperation, including better information-sharing and testing the possibility of an extradition agreement. And the meeting injected overdue momentum to talks on a free trade agreement, slated for sign-off in the spring.
Indian officials will have been pleased by a few other diplomatic signals from the EU. The two sides’ joint statement calls on Pakistan to bring those behind the Mumbai attacks to justice. Unlike the 2009 summit’s statement, it mentions neither Myanmar nor the UN’s benighted Human Rights Council, standard sources of Indo-European dissension.
These omissions are tacit European acknowledgments of India’s newfound strength. But the statement treads lightly on areas where the EU and India should be having vastly more serious discussions. The two sides emphasized “their common interest in a stable, peaceful and inclusive Afghanistan”, but had little to say on how they hope to get there.
Iran merits just one sentence—again on the anodyne side. This is striking because the EU’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton led talks with the Iranians on their nuclear programme earlier this month. With India about to take a seat on the United Nations Security Council, a stronger statement of shared priorities on Iran would have been a useful diplomatic tool.
Perhaps there just wasn’t enough common ground on the issue. Other major items on the Security Council agenda—such as the looming crisis in Sudan and ongoing instability in the Democratic Republic of Congo—go entirely unmentioned. A vague commendation of security cooperation in support of the United Nations is included, but it lacks any identifiable teeth.
By contrast, this year’s statement found room to note a new cultural agreement and promises a memorandum of understanding on statistics. These are doubtless useful, as are the numerous commercial agreements the document mentions. But on the strategic front, there is no real sense of shared interests, with the important exception of terrorism.
That may not be a bad thing. For now, the EU and India may gain more from incremental but solid cooperation on issues such as terrorism and trade rather than sweeping statements of strategic intent. After all, the EU has a nervous tic of promulgating new “strategies” at every possible opportunity. Far too many of them lack substance.
For all that, the EU and India do have shared strategic interests, stemming in large part from the zones of instability that lie between them. A significant escalation of tensions in the Middle East or Central Asia could threaten EU-Indian trade, compromise their energy security and inspire terrorist attacks. The risks of such an escalation are high, especially if Iran continues to pursue a nuclear weapon or the Afghan situation deteriorates further.
A recent report by the European Council on Foreign Relations suggested that the EU, Russia and Turkey should launch a “trialogue” to manage their regional concerns. Expand your geopolitical focus to bring in the Middle East and Central Asia, and India looks like the essential partner for the Europeans and Russians in trilateral security talks.
Perhaps Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev should be invited to participate in next year’s EU-India summit as a special guest, to discuss joint strategies for tackling issues such as Iran. Or perhaps not —for such an innovation would surely irritate both the US and China.
Nonetheless, Indian and European officials need to find ways to inject a greater degree of strategic seriousness into their ongoing dialogues. There are obvious obstacles. India is unlikely to takes EU entreaties to put pressure on Tehran too seriously while European members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) are looking to exit Afghanistan (along with being nice to Pakistan).
But a glance at the map should remind both European and Indian officials of why they need to cooperate—if they want better economic and political links, they need to address the security challenges and deal with the weak states that litter the roads and sea lanes between them.
Richard Gowan & Sushant K. Singh are, respectively, associate director at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and fellow for national security at the Takshashila Institution.
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