Narendra Modi’s Europe visit reaffirms India’s diplomatic heft despite Russian roulette at play in Ukraine

The 19 th  century version of the Concert of Europe existed intermittently between 1815 up to the beginning of World War I in 2014, lasting ...

The 19th century version of the Concert of Europe existed intermittently between 1815 up to the beginning of World War I in 2014, lasting for an entire century. Its purpose was to ensure stability by general consensus, maintain the European balance of power, its political boundaries, and spheres of influence.

The first phase of the Concert, up to 1848, was sometimes referred to as the Age of Metternich, the conservative Austrian Chancellor with great influence over the relatively newly formed German Confederation.

Notably, and in the present context, Tsar Alexander I of Russia was very much part of the Concert. It was a kind of EU of its times, given to breakdowns and resurrections, till it gave up the ghost with the challenges posed by the Great War.

Curiously today, almost eight decades after World War II which the Soviet Union helped to win, and 30 years after the end of the Warsaw Pact, Russia was not invited to join NATO. It was not seen as part of Europe even as many of the former Soviet satellites, Slavic states like Russia, have been lapped up.

Instead, as Pope Francis made bold to say to an Italian publication recently, “NATO’s barking at Russia’s door might have resulted in Vladimir Putin launching a military offensive in Ukraine.”

File image of Pope Francis. Reuters

While the situation in Ukraine was very much part of the discussion in every capital visited by the Indian prime minister, India’s position is one of neutrality between the warring sides, with calls for an end to hostilities and a return to negotiations and dialogue.

India is seen as a friend of both sides, and indeed an important global presence now, part of Quad, and an invitee to the G-7. This even as it has existential problems with China, arraigned for thousands of kilometres along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), on what was not so long ago an independent Tibet.

Despite this, are India and China slowly but surely pulling away at the balance of power from Europe and America?

Could China and India possibly unite someday, if a union amongst unequal can work? Can Russia maintain its independence in its alliance with China on the strength of its military prowess alone?

Between India and China, is it the story of the hare and the tortoise? China with its attempts to encircle and intimidate India, finally falling short because of financial inability, and client states that have gone bankrupt. India making its gradual but sure-footed progress towards a kind of invincibility against Chinese designs, as well as other big power menaces?

Representational image. AFP

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first three-day visit abroad in 2022 began with him touching down in Berlin to meet with the new Chancellor of Germany, Olaf Scholz, from the centre-left Social Democratic Party, at the head of a coalition with the environmentalist Green Party and the neo-liberal Free Democrats.

It is perhaps no surprise that the one solid announcement from the German leg of the tour was about a €10 billion German fund to be disbursed by 2030 to support green projects in India.

It has long been a plank of the latter-day economies like India and China that the responsibility for global warming falls unequally upon the West. This is because it is largely due to reckless exploitation of natural resources and the environment during their earlier Industrial Revolution. Therefore, there is a demand from the new economies that it should be financially supported in making expensive changes to a greener format. India showed its willingness to make deep cuts in its carbon footprint at the last Paris-based Climate Talks. China was less forthcoming.

The German announcement was possibly in this context and set the theme for Prime Minister Modi’s visit next to Denmark where he was very warmly received, and where he also attended the Nordic Conference with Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, Finland and Norway.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, left, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. AP

Green technologies, techniques, and experience from Denmark and the countries of the Nordic Conference were high on the agenda for discussions and early initiatives in areas such as reforestation and environmental restoration. Other areas that featured were renewables, waste-water management, digitisation and innovations. In the latter, India, despite its 1.4 billion population has made impressive gains. Still there is a lot to learn from the neat and orderly Scandinavians and Nordics, not least in value-added and processed food technology, which strangely has not found a mention.

India’s spectacular tackling of the COVID-19 pandemic, its production and administration of tens of millions of doses of Indian vaccines, came up for admiring comments. India is increasingly seen as the pharmacy to the world, not least of all due to its affordable vaccine exports on an emergency basis to many countries.

In Germany, seven more MoUs were signed, some with an eye to greater trade between the two countries, easier exchange of personnel, solar power and hydrogen power initiatives, greater trade, in the context of seeking diversification of supply channels away from too much dependence on China. India, on its part, invited investment from Germany in its bid to further its aatmanirbhar aspirations.

Prime Minister Modi was accompanied on this trip by the External Affairs Minister and the National Security Adviser amongst others in his high-powered delegation.

Germany, which Prime Minister Modi visited first, and France, the last stop on his tour, are the mainstays of the European Union, and its biggest economies. The visit bracketed the solvent, even rich, and important Nordic and Scandinavian countries in between, not all of them members of the EU, or, as yet, NATO. The Indian diaspora in each country accorded the prime minister a most effusive welcome, sometimes complete with Hindu motifs.

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What is perhaps most significant about this trip is the growing importance accorded to India in world affairs, and a growing desire for many countries in Europe going through hard economic times, to engage with it.

The immediate causatives are both the pandemic and the conflict in Ukraine which has inflated costs, occasioned shortages of all kinds including food, fuel and other goods. These challenges have come on top of slowed economies, high defence costs suddenly thrust on them by the situation in Ukraine, and potential increases in tensions with China, now allied with Russia.

China may not be doing anything to annoy the Europeans or Americans at present unless one counts its solid purchases of Russian oil and gas and the support it is providing to Russia’s financial systems. But the future, given the European dependencies, is not certain.

The Ukraine conflict has also revived the spectre of a second Cold War, this time involving a pugnacious Russia versus all the Western European states. A Cold War with no end unless the EU and NATO roll back from their Eastern expansionism. But that will open up a new can of worms for the countries divested of the NATO umbrella.

The Ukraine conflict has distracted both the Europeans and the Americans from the challenges posed by China in the Asia-Pacific region, opening up new strategic possibilities for the strengthening Russo-Chinese Axis. Orders of howitzers from Taiwan have seen America push back the delivery timelines by three years!

The clumsy and hurried sanctions applied to Russia may have resulted in a closer embrace between the Bear and the Dragon even as they have failed to constrain Russia from prosecuting its military offensive in Ukraine. The world order, including its reliance on the US dollar and the Euro as principal reserve currencies, is changing. The return to a possible Gold Standard is a real possibility, at least in Russia.

Germany, however, is willing to cut fuel imports from Russia even at considerable expense to itself as announced during Modi’s visit. Is this wise or the fog of war? Still, it may not be any of India’s business.

Most glaringly, the failure of America and NATO to bring the Russian invasion of Ukraine to a close, despite pouring in millions of dollars worth of armaments, mercenary fighters, and NATO trainers, will have a major long-term impact.

There are divisions and cracks emerging in the Western alliance. Hungary is not on board. Neither is Serbia. Belarus is firmly in the Russian camp. Poland is eyeing the territory it lost to Ukraine after WWII. Moldova, not yet part of NATO, is on the Russian radar. Other Russian supporters include Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Cuba, most of Africa and the Middle East. Already Ukraine is cut off from the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea, making it very difficult for its oil and other imports.

Prime Minister Modi’s last stop in Paris was to congratulate Emmanuel Macron on his consecutive second term victory as President and to reaffirm ties with the only country in Europe cooperating militarily with India.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Emmanuel Macron meet in Paris. Image courtesy Twitter handle of @PMOIndia

France has also supported India, over its going nuclear, over Kashmir, to be made a permanent member of the UNSC, in the collaboration on Safran fighter jet engines, in jointly building the Scorpene-class diesel-electric submarines, in supplying the Rafale fighter jets, and missile suites.

We have Russia on our armaments radar at some 45 per cent today, down from 80 per cent, but France is picking up quite a bit of the difference, alongside America, Israel, and South Korea. We surely look forward to more military collaboration with France.

The Concert of Europe in the 19th century tried to preserve the world of monarchs against a rising tide of republicanism. It went under several times only to surface and try again. But in those days, the rest of the world, Asia, Africa, the Middle East were just so many colonial resources.

Today, while the Europeans and Americans fight with Russia, it is countries like China and India that will inherit the earth. More so, because their economies are under immense pressure owing to the old-world politics they still pursue. Even the survival of the EU and NATO is not certain in the medium term.

Prime Minister Modi has held and continues to hold his ground against Western pressure in this knowledge. And the West, coming in a stream to India, one after the other, partly to trade, occasionally to threaten or hold out a carrot, has realised the need to shift gears to achieve a fairer, more equitable basis, for its dealings with India.

The writer is a Delhi-based commentator on political and economic affairs. The views expressed are personal.

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India World News: Narendra Modi’s Europe visit reaffirms India’s diplomatic heft despite Russian roulette at play in Ukraine
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