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India, New Delhi: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) meets with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Monday. Photo: European Commission/dpa

Ukraine war, EU security dominate India’s Raisina Dialogue, but China is far from forgotten

  • Russia’s war in Ukraine loomed large at India’s premier foreign policy conference, but there was also plenty of discussion about China’s growing assertiveness
  • India’s Foreign minister S. Jaishankar issued a strong rebuttal after facing thinly veiled criticism about New Delhi’s above-the-fray stance on Ukraine
Ukraine war

“How do you deal with China?”

The question makes former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott laugh.

“How do you deal with something as strong, as dangerous … well, you deal with China with great care,” Abbott says.

That moment epitomised this year’s Raisina Dialogue, the annual conference on geopolitics and geoeconomics, hosted by India’s Ministry of External Affairs and the Observer Research Foundation think tank in New Delhi.

Former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott speaks during a press conference in August 2017. Speaking at the Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi, Abbott said you need “great care” to deal with China. Photo: AP

Abbott’s comment occurred just minutes into a panel discussion on Wednesday on the European dilemma over trade and security in respect to Beijing’s presence in the Indo-Pacific region.

Europe was the focus of the conference, as 8 of the 14 ministers invited to speak were from the continent. The summit was inaugurated by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and almost every discussion had a European flavour – from multilateralism, to the EU’s flagship connectivity project, the Global Gateway project to a more assertive European presence in the Indo-Pacific.
This ties with a larger focus in New Delhi’s foreign policy priority: heightened engagement with European nations, even as their western front witnesses a ravaging war that New Delhi is unwilling to take sides on. Next week, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will embark on his first international visit this year, to three European nations – Germany, Denmark and France.

Yet, the extensive European presence in the event did not take away from what was on everyone’s mind – China. Beijing was a looming presence in the three-day event.

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India has been locked in a military stand-off with China, along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) for nearly 2 years, leading to deteriorating diplomatic and economic ties between the two neighbours. The EU-China relationship has also turned chilly after Beijing refused to condemn Moscow for its actions in Ukraine. There are increasing signs the European Union might be rethinking its trade ties with China – the recent summit between the EU and China failed to produce a joint statement, a signal, possibly, of the many divergences within the relationship.

Europe on the lips, China on their minds

As a result, the conference saw the concerns of both New Delhi and Brussels regarding an assertive China take shape.

Many like Abbott and von der Leyen, warned the war in Ukraine is likely to lead to repercussions, not just for Europe but also for the Indo-Pacific and India.

Calling it a defining moment, von der Leyen, in her inaugural speech said “If we consider what it means for Europe and Asia, Russia and China have seemingly forged a seemingly unrestrained pact, they have declared that the friendship between them has no limits”.

“For the Indo-Pacific region, it is as important as it is for Europe, that borders are respected and spheres of influence are rejected,” she added.

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Abbott, who is currently the Australian Prime Minister’s special envoy on trade, said that China was “looking very carefully” at the happenings in Ukraine.

“If [Russian President Vladimir] Putin ultimately wins through pulverising Ukrainian cities, there is absolutely no doubt that it will embolden the Beijing regime to have a go at Taiwan,” Abbott said.

Wang Xiaojian, the spokesman for the Chinese embassy in India tweeted out furious counters to these comments, arguing the situation in Ukraine and Taiwan was “not comparable at all. “The real agenda of those who deliberately compared the 2 is to create a new crisis across [the] Taiwan Strait to serve some countries’ geopolitical interests at the cost of regional peace & stability,” Wang tweeted.

In a separate tweet, Wang also said “the so-called Indo-Pacific strategy” of countries, was “stoking geopolitical rivalry, forming exclusive clubs, imposing rules [that] suit itself,” tagging the Raisina Dialogue in his post.

Divisions on display

Many in New Delhi saw these statements to be subtle reminders about the need to take a firmer stance against Russian aggression. Since the war started in February, India has refused to condemn the Russian invasion and has abstained from various votes at the United Nations that have blamed Moscow for the war.

These abstentions led to various questions and thinly-veiled criticism of New Delhi’s stance during the three-day conference, forcing India’s external affairs minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar to offer a stinging rebuttal.

A soldier of the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) guards a national highway leading to Ladakh region. India and China have agreed on a phased and coordinated removal of forward troop deployments from a key point in the eastern Ladakh region that sparked conflict in the area. Photo: SOPA Images via ZUM

Insisting that New Delhi had “a fairly clear position” on the issue, Jaishankar contrasted Europe’s concerns on Russian aggression with its ambivalence when “rules-based order was under challenge in Asia” a reference to the Chinese military actions in India’s Ladakh region since May 2020.

At least 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese troops died in a clash in the area in June 2020. An EU spokesperson had urged both countries to “show restraint and engage in military de-escalation” while pushing for dialogue, even as New Delhi had hoped for a firmer response backing it.

“If I were to put those very challenges in principles, when rules-based order was under challenge in Asia, the advice we got from Europe was do more trade,” said Jaishankar. “At least we are not giving you that advice,” he added.

Referring to statements about the implications of the Ukraine war on Asia, Jaishankar said he had been “hearing” these concerns for the last 2 months “about how we must be worried because things happening in Europe could happen in Asia.”

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“Guess what, things have been happening in Asia for the last 10 years. This could be a wake-up call for Europe, not just in Europe but also to look at Asia,” Jaishankar said. “This is a part of the world where the rules-based order has been under continuous stress.”

Such references, insiders in the Indian ministry of external affairs said, were meant to serve two purposes. “One was to remind them that New Delhi would have liked a more assertive European response to Chinese aggression against it,” the source said. “The other was to spur them into action now and going forward,” the source added.

A more coherent approach

Yet, both sides insisted such divergences on Ukraine and China were unlikely to hurt the India-EU relationship for now.

There are signs the two are increasingly looking at ways to paper over their differences.

Von der Leyen ’s description of Beijing as a “systematic rival” and statements by foreign ministers by European nations point to a growing alignment between Brussels and New Delhi on China. In addition, Modi and von der Leyen announced the EU and India had agreed to set up a trade and technology council to boost ties in those sectors. The sides are set to resume negotiations in June on a possible free-trade agreement.

EU and India to boost trade, Indo-Pacific partnership amid cool China ties

Portugal’s foreign minister Joao Cravinho, speaking at a panel discussion at the conference, said there was “significant proximity” between the EU and India.

“The Ukrainian crisis has further underscored the need for Europe and India to partner,” adding that he believed there was growing realisation in Brussels that “we can strategically trust India.”

It’s this trust that Modi will look to build on, when he embarks on his three-day visit to Germany, Denmark and France next week.