The news that in November 2020 the Netherlands, a relatively small country of the European Union (EU), had issued its own official strategy on the Indo-Pacific region, generated much discussion around the world. The Netherlands was the third European country, after France (2018) and Germany (2020), to issue a comprehensive view of this new geography in strategic terms. These decisions underscore the increasing importance of the Indo-Pacific maritime geography over the next decades as the centre of gravity of global politics and economics. At the core of the Indo-Pacific lies India, the world’s largest democracy. An emerging trade partner for the EU, India is also establishing itself as a security provider for the essential maritime trade routes that link Asia with Europe. As the European Union has recently started to look beyond China, labeling it as a strategic competitor in 2019, new partnerships would be needed and are being codified. Italy too needs to respond fast to this evolving strategic reality by framing its own approach to the Indo-Pacific in general and India in particular.
Currently Italy and India are important trading partners in key sectors such as finance, railway development, fashion industry and automobile manufacturing, where Italian FIAT-FCA has a consolidated supply chain in India. In 2019, trade volume between the two nations reached 9.52 billion euros, with Italy emerging as India’s fifth largest trading partner in the EU, while Italian Foreign Direct Investment to India is expected to reach $2 billion euros in 2020. In the defence sector, important contacts have been established between Italian state-owned shipbuilder company Fincantieri and its Indian counterpart Cochin Shipyard Limited. The two companies have signed an MoU aimed at naval design, local construction, naval automation, and training of Indian personal. Italy can support India’s key initiatives such as Make in India and Atmanirbhar Bharat (self-reliant India). During the November 2020 virtual summit between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Italian President Giuseppe Conte, the two leaders agreed to further strengthen bilateral relations in the fields of agriculture, infrastructure, and clean energy in a sign of the growing importance that both governments are according to a more structured partnership.
Bilateral relations have now entered a critical stage. As the post COVID-19 world shakes up old assumptions about international affairs, it is time for India and Italy to acknowledge the deep geopolitical potential of their partnership and act accordingly. The Indo-Pacific, at one end, is becoming the leading route for international maritime trade, and the Mediterranean Sea, on the other, is the natural point of arrival for ship cargos arriving from Asia. Acting jointly in both areas would mean promoting values such as democracy, free trade, security, and rule of law, that denote India and Italy’s international behavior, with consequences in terms of planning and policymaking. In this sense, India and Italy should start from identifying a bilateral mechanism for the management of potential security issues that might arise between these two spaces. India, the leading security provider in the Indian Ocean Region is permanently present in the region to keep those waters free along with regional and global partners. Equally, Italy is not only present in the Mediterranean, but also extends its projection in the Red Sea up to the coasts of Somalia with either naval bases or naval vessels in cooperation with European and NATO forces.
Most of the security issues present in the Indo-Pacific-Mediterranean space can potentially affect both countries in similar ways. From the presence of piracy in the Gulf of Aden to instability in coastal states, maritime supply chains between the two can easily get affected. Great power competition also plays a part, as external actors, bearers of different values and goals from the one shared by India and Italy, seem to be actively promoting instability with their assertive military presence. An important issue that India and Italy should deal at the highest levels is that of terrorism. As Modi and Conte underlined in the November summit, both countries are committed to this fight. Terrorism, either present as state-sponsored or non-state originated, is a plague that affects the Mediterranean region the same way it affects South Asia. Acknowledging and finding effective means to deal with terrorism should be a priority in bilateral relations, by establishing robust channels for information-sharing, opposing all the diverse networks that support and sustain international terrorism, and targeting state sponsors of terrorism, from Pakistan and Syria to Libya and the Sahel. Both India and Italy can count on historical good ties with the Middle Eastern and the North African countries, an asset that can pave the way for a common effort of security-oriented diplomatic and political action.
2021 and 2023 will see Italy and India respectively preside over the G20 during what is expected to be a critical phase in the recovery of global economy and inter-state relations after the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has demonstrated that the absence of strong and effective multilateral institutions, able to counter-balance growing disorder as well as coordinate global responses, are a critical issue for the immediate future. India and Italy share support for multilateral institutions and rule of law and should be at the forefront of an international dialogue for reforming current institutions and bringing together like-minded countries. In the Indo-Pacific space, Italy has so far been absent from the coordinated approach that regional countries have directed towards qualitative infrastructural development projects. As demand for an alternative to China’s predatory infrastructure investments grows, Italy along with other European powers will have to do more than just critique the Chinese model.
India and Italy are cradles to some of the world’s ancient cultures, an aspect of their engagement that will be celebrated next year with Modi’s participation to the 700th anniversary of Dante Alighieri. But the two nations also need a roadmap for a partnership that responds to the challenges of the 21st century. As the world adjusts to the new normal after COVID-19 with Indo-Pacific at its core, Italy should be more ambitious in its foreign policy aspirations. Crafting a strong action-oriented partnership with India is the first step towards making its presence felt in the region and beyond. With the EU and several European powers already making the move, Italy should move fast. It will find in India a willing partner that too is ready to shed its old reticence.