Tuesday, July 23, 2024
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CHINA’S BELLIGERENT turn under Xi Jinping and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has had many unforeseen consequences, from a crisis over a spy balloon to reinvigorating NATO. One of the most significant side effects of the new age of aggressive autocracies has been a push by the West to draw India closer. In June Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, undertook a state visit to Washington, where he was feted by the White House, Congress, and business leaders alike.

Europe, too, has been trying to get cozier. Last month Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, hosted Mr Modi for a state visit. In February Olaf Scholz, Germany’s chancellor, made a trip to Delhi, India’s capital, followed in March by Giorgia Meloni, Italy’s prime minister. Soon after the war began last year, Ursula von der Leyen made her first official visit as president of the European Commission, bringing seven European foreign ministers in tow. Ministers and officials from Hungary, Spain, and the Nordics have also beaten a path to Delhi.

America is courting India partly because it wants to deepen business links with the world’s fastest-growing major economy. But close ties with India are also important to its strategy for dealing with Mr. Xi. The White House hopes that India can become an alternative base for supply chains as they diversify away from China. And it wants to strengthen security ties with India, whose relations with China have been fraught in recent years. During Mr Modi’s visit in June, the two countries signed several defense deals, including to manufacture jet engines in India. Crucially, President Joe Biden refrained from criticizing Mr. Modi on his government’s human rights record or the erosion of democratic norms.

Europe’s goals are similar to America’s, but not identical. It, too, would like to boost trade links with India and see supply chains reshaped. Countering China is less of a priority, though; instead, Europe wants to get more countries to oppose Russia’s war in Ukraine. And the Europeans place more emphasis than America on human rights.

The Biden-Modi summit was a big success. Europe, in contrast, is finding that three obstacles stand in the way of better Indo-European relations. The first is that Europe does not take seriously enough what it sees as minor irritants but which infuriate India and Indians alike. The European Union’s visa policies for its 27-country free-travel region, known as Schengen, are a case in point. An EU citizen who wants to attend a conference or a business meeting in India has to fill in an online form and pay a fee; the visa will arrive within a few hours. An Indian trying to make a business trip to Europe has to produce a towering pile of documents, after which the application may still be rejected. On his visit to India, Mr Scholz offered simpler immigration rules for Indian engineers hoping to migrate to Germany. But “how hard can it be to create a fast track for business travelers?” asks Manisha Reuter of the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank in Berlin. Visas are also a stumbling block for Britain’s attempts to finalize its free-trade deal with India.

The second problem is Europe’s demand that India must condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. During her visit, Mrs von der Leyen pointedly urged “all members of the international community” to support Europe’s efforts for lasting peace. Officials from many European countries have echoed this line. Such talk in India is hopeless at best and counterproductive at worst. The country prizes strategic autonomy, which it sees as the right to pursue an array of relationships with diverse partners independent of their feelings toward each other. America has realized that a closer relationship with India means accepting that it has long been close to Russia.

The third reason Europe is struggling to win over India is the focus on human rights. The EU pursues a “values-based” foreign policy. This can ruffle feathers in Delhi, where officials are sensitive about outside criticism, especially from Western countries, which they see as hypocrites. A recent resolution by the European Parliament condemning the Indian government’s handling of ethnic violence in the north-eastern state of Manipur prompted a sharp rebuke from India’s foreign ministry, to the effect that the matter was “totally internal” and the EU should mind its own business.

None of these obstacles is insurmountable. One European leader who seems to have grasped what drives India is Mr Macron. He avoids lecturing, emphatically echoes India’s rhetoric of strategic autonomy, and focuses squarely on security ties. In July Mr Modi was the guest of honour at the annual Bastille Day military parade in Paris, which Mr Macron used with some success to charm President Donald Trump in 2017. As Mr Modi set off from Delhi, India’s Defence Acquisitions Council granted initial approval for deals to buy 26 French Rafale jets and three Scorpène submarines, estimated to be worth some $10bn in total. If other European countries genuinely desire closer ties with India, they may have little choice but to follow Mr Macron’s example.


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