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21st Jan 2022

Opinion

The Porto EU-India summit - let's not forget south Asia

  • Prime minister Narendra Modi with then Belgian PM Charles Michel. Forging an EU partnership with South Asia with the full buy-in of India will surely be seen with suspicions and perhaps hostility by Beijing (Photo: PMINDIA)

In Porto, where for the first time together all the leaders of the EU and its member states will meet (albeit virtually) prime minister Narendra Modi on Saturday (8 May), there is an opportunity not only to add a new impetus to the relationships between Europe and India but also a chance to provide practical guidance to the EU Commission and the high representative for the joint communication on the EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific - to be published in September.

The way this document will be finalised will represent the key test against which assess the real ambitions of the EU in the Asia-Pacific region.

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Once central question: will the formal pledges and generic ambiguity of the council conclusions be turned into an ambitious agenda of action, blending together different visions for a very diverse and vast region?

On the one hand there are now major efforts being undertaken in an increasingly relevant south-east Asia where the EU has recently stepped up its cooperation with the ASEAN community and, on the other hand, there is the strategic need to bring to even further level the relationships with Japan and South Korea in the defence and foreign affairs domains without forgetting the Pacific where China has shown signs of greater assertiveness.

Amid this urgent need to reconcile and meld together different sub regional interests, the EU should not set aside its commitment towards south Asia and the upcoming summit in Porto could help reassert the role Europe can play in promote stability, prosperity, respect for human rights within the sub-continent, more from a strategic view rather than only through sole developmental lens so far dominating the relationships.

There might be a problem here as India has always been jealous of its special relations with its neighbourhood, always acting, despite some pushbacks from its regional counterparts, as the dominant player, at least till the rise to power of president Xi Jinping of China.

With China reclaiming its role in South Asia, it might be the time for prime minister Modi to welcome a stronger engagement of the EU there, endorsing a more strategic role of the Europeans in the region.

That's why it is of absolute importance that the discussions in Porto also cover the entire south Asia from a strategic perspective, promoting the "multidimensional" approach (though inevitably less ambitious) that India and the EU were able to forge together in the last five years.

The now widespread consensus that, expanding what was just an economic cooperation into a much more complete and strategic relationship (though, legally speaking, there is still an obsolete Cooperation Agreement signed in 1994 in place) is in the strategic interest of both India and EU, should also pave the way for a joint partnership between the two in the South Asia.

Such collaboration could be aligned to the some of the anchors upon which the EU and India are building their relationship, namely green connectivity and climate action and sustainable development.

For example, a country like Nepal has an ambitious social and economic development agenda and the private sector there is eager to do its part with billions of dollars of investments to achieve its National Economic Transformation 2030.

Foundational to a new EU's engagement in the region is the huge demand for infrastructural financing as interregional connectivity projects struggle to take off due to tensions in the past between Pakistan and India, general lack of political will and bureaucratic paralysis.

Flooding and forest fires

Equally daunting is the challenge to cover the massive costs of climate action as the region is one of most vulnerable in the world to climate change with recurrent patterns of flooding and forest fires.

According to the World Bank "between 1990 and 2019, more than 1,000 climate-induced disasters in south Asia affected 1.7 billion people and caused more than $127bn [€106bn] in damages", creating more poverty, as "climate change could drive 62 million people in South Asia into extreme poverty; floods alone could cost an estimated $215bn annually by 2030".

Estimates from the Asian Developing Bank hold that "infrastructure needs in developing Asia and the Pacific will exceed $22.6 trillion through 2030, or $1.5 trillion per year" and South Asia has some of the weakest levels of connectivity.

While both India and China have ambitious plans in the region from the infrastructural point of view, the EU through the European Investment Bank, EIB, could play an important role as well in the south Asia especially now that there are high expectations that the EIB will further step in to support the EU's connectivity agenda in India, enlarging its already consistent portfolio of projects there.

Moreover now that the pandemic has once again struck the region in a much stronger fashion, there is an overall case for the EU to further engage south Asia, helping "build forward better", backing a re-booting of national economies of the region that, despite years of boom before the crisis, remained persistently unequal and unable to "leave no one behind".

An EU approach to south Asia from the prisms of the Agenda 2030, centred on green recovery, climate action, social protection, resilience and sustainable development and importantly, human rights, the latter a sensitive issue on the bilateral front with India, could more easily nudge prime minister to open the gates to its neighbours.

There is a strong rationale for the EU to embed its future comprehensive strategy to the Indo- Pacific by incorporating a robust South Asia pillar and the Porto Summit offers the chance to advance this agenda.

Forging an EU "Partnership Framework for South Asia" with the full buy in of India will surely be seen with suspicions and perhaps hostility by Beijing but this development instead could be framed in the logic of mutual interest, a chance to help a region in need through less cut throat competition and more cooperation.

Lastly, being explicit with prime minister Modi on the interest of an enhanced presence of Europe in the sub-continent might also induce India to bring the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation out of life support.

Author bio

Simone Galimberti is the co-found of the NGO Engage - Inclusive Change Through Volunteering and blogs at Sharing4Good on social inclusion, volunteering, youth development, regional integration and the Sustainable Development Goals in Asia-Pacific.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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