India Gives Up Its Anti-Colonial Obsessions and Embraces Europe
In response to China’s rise, New Delhi casts off anti-Western baggage.
In early May, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a virtual summit with his British counterpart, Boris Johnson, followed by a joint meeting with the leaders of the European Union. These two events were more than routine high-level exchanges. They mark a distinct turning point in India’s approach to Europe, which dominated India and much of the rest of Asia during the colonial era. Breaking with its outdated anti-colonial obsessions, India is now ready to embrace Europe as part of a broader strategic shift as New Delhi seeks to cope with the growing challenge presented by China.
India’s new emphasis on strengthening security cooperation with Britain and the EU within the framework of Indo-Pacific security is matched by a new commitment to seek trade liberalization with Europe as well. The new interest in deepening commercial ties comes amid India’s efforts to decouple its economy from China’s.
That India is warming up to Europe as it seeks to stabilize the Asian balance of power and limit its dependence on a China-led Asian economic order will certainly surprise many in the world. After all, India’s foreign policy has long been seen as rooted in principles such as nonalignment, developing-world solidarity, and, more recently, New Delhi’s promotion of a multipolar world in partnership with non-Western powers such as China and Russia.
But the notion that New Delhi would forever be anti-colonial and anti-Western in its orientation was always a myth. The myth was constructed by the Indian political and intellectual class, and by Western academic studies of India’s international relations. And while that orientation did exist for many decades following India’s independence, there was no reason to expect it to be permanent and immutable. Policies, even the most strongly rooted ones, will inevitably change in response to radically altered circumstances.
India’s attitudes toward the West have evolved since the end of the Cold War as the country slowly opened up its economy to U.S. and European capital and technology, sought to revitalize political engagement with the world’s leading democracies, and worked to diversify its security partnerships.
India’s strategic cooperation with the United States began to flourish in the 21st century, culminating in a revitalized Quadrilateral Security Dialogue among Australia, India, Japan, and the United States. But New Delhi’s ties with the European powers lagged behind despite continuous high-level engagement. The situation began to change under Modi, whose foreign-policy advisors were determined to improve the country’s partnerships with Europe.
The first to seize the new possibilities was France. Like Washington, Paris was ready to pursue a policy that prioritized New Delhi in South Asia and tilt toward India in its regional disputes with Pakistan. France, like the United States, was also quick to see the benefits of the Indo-Pacific framework, which anchored engagement with India within a broader strategy toward Asia. This, in turn, led Paris to expand political and security cooperation with New Delhi.
Washington and Paris also shared New Delhi’s understanding of the threat posed by Beijing—in general terms if not their specific details. London and Brussels were initially reluctant to see this challenge but are now closer to U.S. perceptions. Germany and the Netherlands have also articulated their own Indo-Pacific strategies and are willing to take a fresh look at India.
New Delhi, under Modi, has been more open to shedding its hesitations about engaging London and Brussels and investing political and bureaucratic resources in reshaping its relationships with both. Although the United States and its Asian allies remain preeminently critical for India in balancing China, New Delhi now sees the importance of Europe in providing greater depth to India’s great-power calculus.
In the words of Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, India now seeks to “engage America, manage China, cultivate Europe, reassure Russia, bring Japan into play.” This is probably the first time that India’s political leadership has included Europe—including Britain—as part of its geopolitical calculus.
However, it is one thing for Modi and his advisors to recognize the virtues of strategic ties with Britain and the EU but another to convince India’s political and bureaucratic establishment to move forward. In New Delhi, lingering resentment against Britain, the former colonial power, has never really disappeared. It was easy to disparage Britain as a “third-rate power.” London’s even-handed policy toward India and Pakistan, its position on the Kashmir dispute, and its tendency to poke into India’s internal developments inevitably sparked anti-British political bashing.
In the past couple of years, Jaishankar has talked up the strategic importance of Britain for domestic audiences, underlining its continued global salience as an economic, technological, political, and security actor. New Delhi also saw that the ruling British Conservative Party was a lot less interested than the old Labour leadership in messing with India’s domestic politics and more open to practical deal-making with India, including on the controversial question of Indian migration to Britain.
Intense negotiations in the last couple of years have now produced a road map for transforming bilateral relations by 2030 that was unveiled at the Modi-Johnson virtual meeting. The road map includes commitments to more intensive cooperation on defense and security, trade and investment, and climate change, as well as science, technology, education, and innovation. The two sides also signed an agreement on migration and mobility, under which Britain will allow more legal immigration by Indian professionals while India will take back Indian migrants living in the U.K. illegally.
New Delhi is no longer in obsessed with raging against the colonial past or complaining about the perceived British support for Pakistan and the latter’s position on Kashmir. Instead, the Modi government is determined to boost the weight of its own strategic engagement with London, leverage enduring British strengths for India’s national development, take advantage of Britain’s post-Brexit ambitions for a global role, and find practical ways to manage a relationship made even more complex by the presence of a large Indian diaspora in Britain.
If too much intimacy and historical baggage have been New Delhi’s problem with London, distance and neglect have been the problem with Brussels. For far too long, New Delhi viewed Europe through the eyes of either London or Moscow. In the last few years, however, New Delhi has ended the political neglect of Continental Europe and pressed for more strategic engagement with the EU. In the last couple of years, Brussels has also taken a more active interest in India by unveiling an India strategy in 2019.
At the end of a rare virtual summit, with the participation of all the EU leaders in the dialogue with Modi, the two sides unveiled an ambitious framework for wide-ranging cooperation. This will include trade, connectivity, resilient global supply chains, climate change, and digital transformation.
Although changing British and EU perceptions on China, the Indo-Pacific, and India’s potential contribution to regional and global order provided a new basis for India’s partnerships with Europe, New Delhi also recognized that trade was the weak link. In London and Brussels, after all, commercial partnerships are often the first consideration.
Having walked away from an Asia-wide, China-dominated free trade agreement—the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership—in 2019, New Delhi has been eager to deepen trade ties with the West. It has now agreed to intensify negotiations with Britain on a free trade agreement and persuaded the EU to resume the long-stalled negotiations on trade liberalization. This has necessarily involved Modi getting India’s recalcitrant trade bureaucracy to think strategically about commerce with Britain and the EU.
If the idea that New Delhi is looking to Europe to change the balance of power in the East is surprising, it helps to recognize how elusive Asian unity has always been. Despite much anti-imperial solidarity between the Indian and Chinese national movements in the period leading up to World War II, cooperation between them during the war became impossible. The Indian nationalists focused on ending British rule, and their Chinese counterparts focused on reversing Japanese occupation.
During the Cold War, the conflict over Tibet and the disputed boundary between India and China undermined any sense of solidarity. As Beijing warmed up to Washington in the 1970s, Delhi entered a quasi-alliance with Moscow. Now, as China squeezes India on multiple fronts and deepens ties with Russia, New Delhi is drawing closer to the West.
India’s strategic reorientation to the West is not just about the United States. It now involves a strong British and EU component. In the recent past, New Delhi’s quest for a multipolar world was about cooperation with Moscow and Beijing to limit the dangers of the unipolar moment. As it confronts a rising China that looms large over its horizon, India needs both the United States and Europe to construct a multipolar Asia. With the Indian-U.S. partnership on an increasingly strong footing, New Delhi is now complementing its strategic shift by getting closer to Britain and the EU as well.
C. Raja Mohan is the director of the National University of Singapore’s Institute of South Asian Studies and a former member of India’s National Security Advisory Board. Twitter: @MohanCRaja