By Siddharth Anil Nair*
India’s relations with the EU and its members have intensified over the past few years. These relationships are a critical element of contemporary Indian foreign policy—but they aren’t without their challenges. China and Russia, individually and in concert, pose both systemic and strategic challenges to these ties. The trajectory of the India-Germany strategic partnership offers useful evidence in this regard. Symptomatic of the broader India-EU relationship, it illustrates what these challenges are.
Systemic: Multipolarity vs. Multi-polarisation
The primary challenge posed by the Sino-Russian bilateral is systemic. It in their distinct and disruptive conceptions of global order. While New Delhi and Berlin operate as reformist actors, Beijing and Moscow are revisionist. India and Germany seek to uphold, fix, and reshape the US-led international system. China and Russia are trying to overturn, break, and remake that system.
Over the past decade, India and Germany, as the largest economies and populations in their respective regions, have developed closer strategic ties. They are also driven by common interests, like international governance reform, sustainable development, and climate change mitigation, and bound by common values, like respect for sovereignty and the principle of democracy. Together, they have a declared intention to build a more equitable, transparent, inclusive, and just international system. To this end, they have a vested interest in a more multipolar and multilateral world.
In the same time, however, China and Russia have transformed into a nearly singular threat. Their economies and war-making capabilities have fused via a common interest to create a more “multi-polarised” world. In a bid to demolish the US’ “power domination” of the international system and build a “new world order,” both countries are generating global material and political dilemmas (and in some cases, directly fuelling conflict). Together, they are trying to drive changes the “likes of which we have not seen for over 100 years,” and have also established a “no limits”partnership to that end.
If the world is at a “more dangerous line,” then, it is precisely because of Beijing and Moscow’s territorial, economic, and military ambitions. Even though both the Sino-Russian and Indo-German outlooks consider multipolarity to be a natural course of history, the former is clearly trying to accelerate the process as violently as possible.
Russia was encouraged to invade Ukraine for these same reasons. The war in Ukraine is emblematic of the Sino-Russian combine’s revolutionary intentions. Like the pandemic, the war has created a world of deficit: of food and fertiliser, oil and gas, masks and vaccines, semiconductors and hypersonics. The increasingly probable invasion of Taiwan will similarly lead to further such deficit. This deficit is driving political and strategic fragmentation within the international community, and within the India-Germany strategic partnership.
Strategic: Tough Choices; Tougher Navigation
The secondary challenge posed by China and Russia to the India-Germany relationship is strategic. It manifests in the complex, and at times, conflicting intramural relationship between the four countries. While India and Germany have traditionally had differing views on China and Russia—e.g., for New Delhi, Beijing is the traditional adversary, and for Berlin, it’s Moscow—the latter seem to depend on these differences and their exacerbation. Such differences, especially in the context of the Russia-Ukraine war, have the potential to create a real wedge between India and Germany.
Last year, for instance, New Delhi and Berlin differed on the purchase of Russian energy commodities. Germany, with the West, sanctioned Russia and weaned itself off Russian gas. India, on the other hand, took the opportunity to avail the large discounts on Russian oil and more than doubled its import. This created a wedge because buying Russian oil and gas apparently meant indirectly funding the war on Ukraine. While Berlin was careful not to point fingers, the rest of the West was critical of India’s unchanged position.
This forced India to repeatedly justify its purchases of Russian oil by directly juxtaposing it with EU purchases—to the extent that Indian External Affairs Minister Jaishankar’s comment on Europe’s problematic mindset became an Indian foreign policy meme. Fortunately, Indo-German differences on this issue seemed to have been overcome, or at least disregarded, when the two signed a joint declaration on green hydrogen research, technology, and supply-chains. The wedge hasn’t been hammered out completely, however. The ‘Europe vs. the World’ narrative has reared its head again in 2023, following EU Foreign Minister Borrell’s comment on India’s refinement and reselling of Russian oil to Europe.
There are similar issues with China. Over the past few years, Germany has officially begun to consider Beijing as a “competitor and systemic rival.” While this position is welcomed in India, it is still a tricky one to walk. Even though China has generated “enormous risk” for German economy and security, Berlin still counts China as a key global partner. German trade and businesses are heavily reliant on China. Even German critical infrastructure has found its way into Chinese hands. This situation has played out on a larger scale among other EU members as well.
Furthermore, a caravan of European leaders led by Presidents Macron and von der Leyen made their way to Beijing in April this year, at a time of “abnormal” New Delhi-Beijing ties. German Foreign Minister Baerbock followed a week later. On their agenda: convince President Xi Jinping to moderate President Putin’s ambitions in Ukraine, and more importantly, expand business ties. Macron, in a major hit to European credibility, even went so far as to pin the prospects of peace on Xi himself. He expressed his agreement with Xi’s belief that “anyone who thought they could influence Beijing on Taiwan was deluded.” This wasn’t just a tacit acknowledgement that China would eventually invade Taiwan and that Europe would be best to stay clear, but also a reminder of what Jaishankar meant by the European mindset.
Even though the India-Germany relationship, like the India-EU one, has intensified significantly, significant challenges persist. Bilateral differences in foreign policy priorities will be a hurdle, as will the direct and indirect systemic and strategic obstacles laid by the Sino-Russian combine.
China and Russia have a distinct vision of global order that, in their view, can only be achieved through a thorough destabilisation of the current international system. These two actors, as well as India and Germany, find themselves highly interconnected and interdependent on one another. It will limit sustainable engagement between New Delhi and Berlin, and their other European partners.
Siddharth Anil Nair is Researcher with IPCS’ South East Asia Research Programme (SEARP).