Vijay Gokhale: "Indians deem it important for Europe to retain its strategic autonomy"
MERICS Senior Fellow Vijay Gokhale was Foreign Secretary of India from 2018 to 2020 and the country’s Ambassador to China and to Germany before that. MERICS talked to him about how China is affecting relations between Europe and the world’s largest democracy.
Chancellor Olaf Scholz recently visited India in part to look for ways to reduce German dependence on China. How are tensions between Europe and China affecting India’s relations with the EU?
Europeans are displeased with China’s political and diplomatic support for Russia, which includes endorsing the idea that the war was forced upon Russia by the West disregarding its geo-political and security interests. But the general Indian view is that Europeans think China too important a global player to be cold-shouldered. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s response to China’s “peace plan” is also regarded in India as having the tacit endorsement of major European countries.
Economically, most Indians still think that the Chinese market remains a high priority for much of Europe. Consequently, they consider it unlikely that there will be a significant departure of European business or capital from China – and so expect the potential economic benefits for India from worsening China-EU relations to be marginal. But on the political side, there is a greater willingness in both India and the EU to develop a joint understanding of China’s geo-strategic objectives. India sees this an opportunity to build a common strategic approach to Indo-Pacific policy with Europe. It is in the shared interest of Europe and India to facilitate peace and stability and a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific. This is possible because the perception that China is seeking to impose its own order in the Indo-Pacific arouses concerns in Europe as well as in Asia.
Does India think that the United States and the European Union have aligned on China? How does it rate the EU’s success in aiming for “strategic autonomy” from both the US and China?
India has noticed a re-alignment in EU thinking about China since 2019 and the steady shift from perceiving China as a “partner” to seeing it as a “systemic rival”. But Indians do not think this shift has been uniform across Europe. The major states, Germany and France, do seem be looking at China more strategically, with an eye on the global balance of power. But smaller European states appear to be more aligned with US thinking, especially after China imposed sanctions on Lithuania and gave its political and moral support to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Similarly, Indians think the EU may not fully commit to US technology sanctions against China as they could harm Europe’s semiconductor sector.
The chance of a significant US-EU alignment on China has come under renewed scrutiny in India. After the start of the Ukraine conflict, the feeling grew that the two parties have different strategic priorities. India sees Europe’s attempt to walk the tightrope between China and the US as somewhat akin to what India is doing between the West and Russia. Indians welcome this as they deem it important for Europe to retain its strategic autonomy in global affairs. Given this, they would be content with only partial rather than total alignment between the two major Western players on any international issue.
China and India have refused to align with the West in opposition to Russia’s war on Ukraine. Do both countries have a rare new common interest – perhaps even as go-betweens?
There are fundamental differences between China-Russia and India-Russia relations. India has always enjoyed friendly ties with Russia since 1947 – the bilateral relationship has not seen the sharp swings China-Russia ties have experienced. Overall, India’s relations with Russia are a common element in its post-World War 2 non-alignment and current multi-alignment policies. On the other hand, China’s Russia policy has always been driven by expediency and broader balance-of-power considerations. The country’s current strategic perspective makes the current regime of President Vladimir Putin its preferred option. But in India’s case the relationship is not built on contingencies like personalities or regimes. It is founded on mutual respect and the absence of any fundamental conflicts of interest.
This means the responses of India and China to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have been fundamentally different. India has made it clear from the outset that violence and war are no solutions for disputes. It has repeatedly urged all parties to return to dialogue to resolve the problem. India has also publicly condemned the egregious human rights violations in Bucha and elsewhere. It has not taken sides between the warring parties, nor has it amplified Russian justification for the invasion. India remains sensitive to and acknowledges European concerns over the war, and its policy, like that of the European states, is driven by international principles and national circumstances. It has maintained contact with both Russia and Ukraine and supports all efforts to resolve the situation in a mutually satisfactory way. But it is premature to talk about any specific role without a request from the concerned parties.
In our second Future China Lecture on March 29, 1-2 pm (CEST), Vijay Gokhale will provide an Asian perspective on China. His talk will deal with how China sees itself, how others in the region see it, as well as the challenges that they face and opportunities they have available to shape the global order to their way of thinking. Find more information and sign up for the online event here.