France and Germany can help India secure a free and open Indo-Pacific, counter ambitions of ascendant China

  • The Indo-Pacific is a strategic reality of our turbulent times

  • Most of China’s neighbours, including India, are struggling to remain engaged with it

  • Franco-German partnership with India gives the ASEAN a significant opportunity

A joint column by French ambassador Alexander Ziegler and German Charge d’ affaires Jasper Wieck has called for deeper cooperation between the European Union (EU) and India. The Franco-German partnership, based upon the need to uphold “a multipolar rules-based order, a trade and development policy based on partnerships, a free and open Indo-Pacific region,” has huge importance for India if it wants to make sure that “strength of the law and not the law of the strongest regulate the international order.”

 France and Germany can help India secure a free and open Indo-Pacific, counter ambitions of ascendant China

File photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese president Xi Jinping. Reuters

The Indo-Pacific is a strategic reality of our turbulent times, and this phenomenon has manifested in the rising prominence being accorded to promoting the rules-based order, including freedom of navigation, peaceful dispute settlement, support for international law and financially sustainable infrastructure. As many countries are trying to constrain China’s capacity to infringe on their national interests, the entry of France and Germany in this club must be welcomed.

Most of China’s neighbours, including India, are struggling to remain engaged with China while also trying to preserve their security and sovereign interests. As the EU has also been struggling to define its central purpose amidst the chaos surrounding Brexit, and to cobble up a coherent response to a rising Asian power, the call for India-EU partnership in the Indo-Pacific makes perfect sense. Post-Brexit, France and Germany will be India’s preferred EU member-state partners on confronting many common global challenges. As Indo-Pacific stands for freedom, transparency and openness, India stands to gain both diplomatically and economically by making France and Germany close partners in its endeavour to preserve the sanctity of democratic institutions. What binds the countries subscribing to the Indo-Pacific vision is their unwavering commitment towards democracy.

The partnership should include cooperation on questions of emerging technologies that breach new territories every day. Various social media platforms are now being used by hostile State and non-State actors for disseminating hate as well as destabilising propaganda. This fact can no longer be denied that open societies and economies are extremely vulnerable to influence operations by non-democratic entities. Against a backdrop of recent state-sponsored influence operations and electoral interference in many developed democracies around the world, India-EU partnership must discuss ways on how to counter this growing menace. The partnership must recognise that better information sharing on how bad actors are exploiting new technological platforms in democratic societies can lead to better solutions.

There is no doubt about externally-mounted efforts to influence the US domestic audience through social media users for shaping political perceptions. India and the EU cannot ignore this dimension as they seek to expand their cooperative agenda amidst gathering pace of viral information sharing. In the emerging world of social media, it is fake news which is increasingly shaping perceptions which not only affect electoral outcomes but also trigger socio-political violence of horrifying proportions. For Franco-German collaboration with India to succeed, it is imperative to find effective ways to counter subversion of the democratic process and exacerbation of societal divisions without jeopardising individual freedoms.

As informed people in India and the EU have concerns about how vulnerable democratic processes can be, deeper analysis of the misuse of social media must be a matter of results-oriented consultations between them so that they can protect their critical infrastructure. The US under President Donald Trump has already opened many fronts against China on cyber security and economic protectionism. Of course, some of these measures are controversial as well. However, many developed democracies are seriously contemplating to forbid Chinese equipment from their domestic communications network on grounds of national security.

As the Chinese surge in the domain of Artificial Intelligence, there are serious questions of surveillance and data privacy regarding the booming market of autonomous products and technologies. This is also a matter of concern for all freedom-loving countries in the Indo-Pacific region, and they would certainly welcome India and EU collaboration in this regard.

Counter-terrorism and countering violent extremism can be a solid agenda for cooperation between the two. Counter-terrorism is already among the issues regularly discussed in India-EU consultations. Now they would do well to enlarge the agenda and underline the importance of deeper coordination among law enforcement agencies. An enhanced emphasis on countering violent extremism in urban spaces will also deepen trust.

However, India-EU partnership would be strengthened if upholding freedom of navigation and a rules-based international order becomes its leitmotif. As the Pentagon has become more flexible in conducting freedom of navigation patrols in the South China Sea, Franco-German collaboration with India has a great opportunity at this moment to deepen their partnership for upholding freedom of navigation. As vibrant democracies, they should claim an important security agenda in the Indo-Pacific region which must be rooted in democratic principles of transparency and openness.

It needs to be recognised that in the time of censorship and self-censorship, it has become extremely challenging to measure the degree to which coercion from China has made journalists, scholars and institutions shy away from reporting or writing about China. Priority must be accorded to break this vice-like grip. Due to Beijing’s predatory economic agenda, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has begun to encounter resistance in many countries in the Indo-Pacific such as Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Malaysia to name just a few. India and the EU should work towards offering an efficient and transparent alternative to the BRI since many small and middle powers in the Indo-Pacific are keen to benefit from infrastructure development and investment.

With China striving for global leadership and liberal democracies struggling to preserve the rules-based international order, many Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member-states are contemplating their own strategic options. The ASEAN has always been the cornerstone of regional security architecture, but the intensification of great power competition between US and China leaves most of ASEAN states with uncomfortable choices. Therefore, Franco-German partnership with India gives the ASEAN a significant opportunity to increase its leverage vis-à-vis China. Beijing’s growing ascendancy needs to be balanced with an inclusive approach that combines leading European powers and Indo-Pacific countries.

An enhanced India-EU dialogue on how to keep the Indo-Pacific free and open has the potential to provide a comprehensive strategic framework to strengthen ties between two important geographic regions of the world. So far, a number of non-traditional security issues such as climate change and disaster response have remained on the margins of discussion about the future of Indo-Pacific. The EU and India should therefore develop a priority list for how best to promote greater trade and investment and sustainable cooperative security regime in their consultative agenda. Doing so will send a strong message about the seriousness they accord to good governance and democratic politics across the Indo-Pacific.

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Updated Date: Jan 24, 2019 17:34:23 IST