Green Technology, Research, security, Writing

All roads connect Delhi and Brussels

Co-Authored with Amrita Narlikar

Our text of ancient fables, the Panchatantra, speaks of “natural allies”. If there are ever natural allies in politics, the European Union (EU) and India should exemplify this relationship. Our cultural exchanges date back to ancient times; our languages have common roots; our borders are closer than ever via a human bridge that connects us: There are millions of Indians in the Middle East, and millions from the Middle East in Europe. Europe and India are a geographical continuum. And both the EU and India— “the world’s largest democracies”—face shared threats and challenges. All roads must now connect Delhi and Brussels.

Here, we lay out a map to address three key challenges: The green transition, the digital transformation, and the preservation of our shared geopolitical landscape. On all three issues, direct and close cooperation between the EU and India will not only be vital for these two major powers and their people—but also for the world at large. 

Green Transition

To address climate change, the EU and its members have been upping their domestic game. The European Green Deal is only one amongst several key initiatives that illustrate the seriousness with which the EU is addressing the existential threat of climate change. At the same time, there is much angst in Europe that these efforts will not suffice unless they are matched by China and India. While the concerns are understandable, a narrative framed in terms of “what will become of the world if every Indian has a car” is patronising and misplaced, especially when one compares the per capita fossil consumption in India to the EU members. In any case, specifically with respect to India, the EU is pushing through an open door on the issue of addressing climate change. India has led the way in international initiatives on the issue of clean energy, for instance, by creating the International Solar Alliance with France. India’s commitment to protecting the environment, moreover, does not stem from recent pressure exercised by Greta Thunberg or Fridays for Future. Contra western anthropocentrism in which activists advocate climate change mitigation for “our children’s future”, Indian philosophy teaches us that the planet belongs to humans, plants, animals, and all living beings. There are, therefore, deep-rooted and inclusive reasons for Indians to be committed to protecting the planet. This commitment should not be doubted. Instead, the EU needs to find ways to invest in this Indian cause and co-create solutions for our common future.

The European Green Deal is only one amongst several key initiatives that illustrate the seriousness with which the EU is addressing the existential threat of climate change.

To achieve this, we need actions and not words. It has taken a full-blown war in the heart of Europe for Germany to recognise the risks of over-dependence on Russia for energy purposes; diversification is proving to be far slower and more complicated than many would like. In light of this experience, it is perhaps even more unreasonable than before to demand that India “phase out” coal at the click of a finger. The EU will have to put its money where its mouth is if it is serious about addressing the global problem of climate change. The Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism, for example, should be more than a “poverty tax”, as it is seen in India; it should be a tool to finance and incentivise the green transition in globally integrated sectors in the emerging world. Technologies vital to low-carbon growth will need to be co-created and co-owned by Europe and partners like India. European capital must be given a nudge to flow into climate-conscious investment in the emerging world. It is up to the EU to make sure that India’s efforts pay off—through significant European financing in key sectors, via public-private partnerships.

Digital Transformation

The EU is leading the way in setting people-centred standards on digital governance via GDPR. India’s Aadhaar Card scheme has shown the pioneering role that digitalisation can play in empowering the poor and facilitating development. There are also already several worrying examples of the pernicious effects of digital technology: Surveillance of local populations by authoritarian states, as well as the manipulation and control of infrastructure and security systems by external actors. To preserve the individual liberties of their people, and strengthen digital sovereignty, European and Indian cooperation will be key.

Research collaborations on dual-use technology, public-private partnerships for implementation and marketing of these innovations, and working jointly and through like-minded coalitions to establish rules for data governance and cyber-security are essential.

These two democratic powers will also be well-served to collaborate on diversifying away from their dependence on China, for e.g., on 5G technology and infrastructure development. Any trade agreement between the EU and India should prioritise this key consideration. Research collaborations on dual-use technology, public-private partnerships for implementation and marketing of these innovations, and working jointly and through like-minded coalitions to establish rules for data governance and cyber-security are essential. Neither the EU nor India can get left behind in a game that is dominated by the boardrooms in the US and party headquarters in China. India and the EU need to enter into a technology partnership that allows for all of this, and for ensuring reliable and integrated supply chains.

Shared geopolitical landscape

Our shared geopolitical landscape—extending beyond geographical proximities and including the Indo-Pacific—has been under extreme stress in recent years. The EU has a war triggered by Russia on its borders; India and its neighbours have had to put up with Chinese adventurism on the Himalayas and in their maritime neighbourhood.

Research collaborations on dual-use technology, public-private partnerships for implementation and marketing of these innovations, and working jointly and through like-minded coalitions to establish rules for data governance and cyber-security are essential. 

This is a time for both the EU and India to be working together to help restore balance in the region. The EU will need to jump off the fence with respect to China; the European mantra of “partner, competitor, rival” is highly inadequate in dealing with a China that has signed a “no-limits” partnership with Russia. India will also need to rethink its own dependencies. The two democracies have now very real incentives to develop closer economic and military ties.

Sanctimonious lectures about morality will need to be replaced by a shared empathy of the like-minded. And all this will require the use of not only Europe’s favourite tool of “soft power”, but also the use of hard power through infrastructure projects, green investment, and military cooperation. Re-aligning their economic and security cooperation with each other will enable both the EU and India to stand up for the values that they both hold dear: Democracy and pluralism.

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China, COVID-19, Research, security, Writing

India’s security choices during the COVID-19 pandemic

At the start of the 2020s, India has been confronted with a massive viral spread and a relentless People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on its borders. Last year, even as India was responding to the pandemic that originated in Wuhan, it had to mobilise its forces to counter Beijing’s invasion on the Himalayan heights. Both resulted in loss of lives and both show no signs of going away. While the virus is threatening to rise again in a ‘third wave,’ China has literally dug in at high altitudes in its quest to secure real estate and territory that it believes is crucial for its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), that provides access to a warm water port in the Arabian Sea, and that is critical to a larger project that seeks to reshape the geopolitical map of Asia. While the two nations have taken modest steps to disengage, military and diplomatic negotiations have not yielded substantive results.

In June 2021, reports emerged that China had been ramping up infrastructure along the Tibetan border. Following this, around 200,000 Indian soldiers have been deployed on the frontier, an increase of over 40 percent from 2020. For India, China poses a clear and present danger. To respond to an expansive and belligerent northern neighbour, it has to reorient its conception of its security as well as deployment of its political and diplomatic resources. This was not the case until very recently.

For India, China poses a clear and present danger. To respond to an expansive and belligerent northern neighbour, it has to reorient its conception of its security as well as deployment of its political and diplomatic resources.

Pakistan had been the major preoccupation since Independence in 1947. Its occupation of parts of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, its export of terror to India as a means of waging an asymmetric war, and its nuclear proliferation had positioned it as the main threat to India’s national security. For long, China had escaped critical scrutiny despite provocative actions. The Indian security establishment was not very vocal when China tested an atomic device during President R. Venkataraman’s state visit in May 1992 — clearly intended to send a message to India. Indian Defence Minister George Fernandes’ prophetic assertion at the turn of the century that China, not Pakistan, was India’s “potential threat No. 1” was not universally shared in the strategic community in New Delhi.

In their public speeches, Chinese leaders declared their preoccupation with the welfare of their people. They took great pains to position China as a responsible power that avoided international confrontation. In hindsight, they clearly succeeded. From the ‘returns seeking’ investors in the United States to the political leaders in Europe and Asia who wanted a piece of the Chinese economic pie, all bought into this masterly conduct of statecraft. For India, the urge to keep China in good humour was also implicated by the border conflict of 1962. Relations had thawed only a quarter-century later. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to Beijing in 1988 paved the way for the Sino-Indian Bilateral Peace and Tranquility Accords inked in 1993 and 1996 to stabilise the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

From the ‘returns seeking’ investors in the United States to the political leaders in Europe and Asia who wanted a piece of the Chinese economic pie, all bought into this masterly conduct of statecraft.

With stability along the boundary, trade and cultural ties between the two nations began to flourish. The boundary pacts mandated that large numbers of troops would not be amassed along the border, and that there would be no attempts to alter the status quo unilaterally. The Indian establishment believed that the border accords would be “peace for our time.” This search for fool’s gold would lead to India curtailing its multilateral naval exercises and slowing down infrastructure development in critical sectors of the India-China border. Influential voices in the Manmohan Singh government (2004-2014) believed India’s security interests would be served if it did not upset China.

Pushback came only in 2013, when transgressions by Chinese forces in Depsang were diplomatically and militarily countered. Yet, here too there was much discussion and debate in the upper echelons of government. Greater clarity was to emerge in 2014 when India, under the newly elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was at the receiving end of Chinese incursions in Ladakh even as a summit was under way with the visiting Xi Jinping. With two episodes in close succession, it would be fair to say that a change in India’s approach to its northern neighbour was thrust upon it.

The Indian establishment believed that the border accords would be “peace for our time.” This search for fool’s gold would lead to India curtailing its multilateral naval exercises and slowing down infrastructure development in critical sectors of the India-China border.

In recent years, India has been able to recalibrate its approach towards the Middle Kingdom even as the world order is changing. The US-India partnership has evolved rapidly. Washington has helped thwart moves by China to internationalise the issue of Jammu and Kashmir, enabled India’s entry into the international nuclear order and brought pressure on Pakistan to crack down on terrorism. The Quad grouping, where Japan and Australia join the duo to keep the Indo-Pacific region inclusive and open to all, is working on providing alternatives to the BRI and is seeking a number of resilient arrangements, including on technology supply chains. A Quad vaccine for all is on the anvil and other countries are looking to partner with the Quad on important global issues.

The ‘La Pérouse’ maritime exercises in the Bay of Bengal, with France joining the Quad members, and the Australia-France-India ministerial dialogue demonstrate that the idea and the ideals of ‘Quad Plus’ are gathering steam. The UK has floated the ‘Democracy 10,’ which includes the Quad countries, to tackle issues related to 5G and emerging technologies that may have a bearing on collective security. Whitehall’s recent assessment of its economic, security and diplomatic interests may see it engage more deeply with India in the Indo-Pacific. Old Europe is certainly finding a place at the core of India’s security calculations.

A testament to India’s recalibration is NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s pitch, at the Raisina Dialogue 2021, to broaden cooperation. NATO views the rise of China as having huge security implications and assesses India as its partner. PM Modi’s historic Porto Summit with leaders of the EU and 27 EU member-states helped boost cooperation on terrorism and maritime security. The ‘connectivity partnership’ between the EU and India seeks to finance projects in other nations, offering an alternative to China’s BRI.

NATO views the rise of China as having huge security implications and assesses India as its partner.

Even as India strengthens and redirects its relationship with the old world, Russia remains the X factor. New Delhi’s strategic ties with Washington have become a sore point for the Kremlin. If two new poles emerge — the US and its partners and allies, and the Beijing-Moscow ‘axis ’ — India’s room for manoeuvre may be affected. India is alive to this possibility and is redoubling its efforts to work with Russia, its largest weapons supplier over the past decades. India has to convince President Putin that the bilateral relationship allows him greater latitude while dealing with his southern neighbour. Through back channels, India also has to work towards a reset between the US and Russia and to convince the EU that pushing Putin into Xi’s corner is dangerous and counterproductive. The recent Biden-Putin summit may have gone some way in making this a possibility.

A resurgent China, with its plan to establish regional hegemony in Asia even as it tries to split and dominate Europe, is Delhi’s biggest security challenge. The Indo-Pacific will define the future of the Asian Century. India has been astute in ensuring that its partners and fellow stakeholders from the Atlantic order work closely with it to navigate the choppy waters of the Indo-Pacific.


An abridged version of the above was published for the Lennart Meri Conference.

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China, Research, security, Writing

Communist Inc: The Pandemic and China’s World

Co-authored with Akhil Deo

The Communist Party of China will celebrate the 100th anniversary of its founding this July. This marks the first significant milestone in Chairman Xi’s “China Dream”, a project that will ostensibly culminate in 2049, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic, with associated aspirations of China cementing its position as a global power. In our book, Pax Sinica, we had detailed three instruments that are crucial to these ambitions: Leadership over global institutions and processes, a conducive environment for achieving “discourse power”, and the construction of new international coalitions. China seeks to control global institutions and rule-making processes, grease and dominate the media and public sphere into a favourable disposition, and enter into perverse partnerships with other nations, described as a “loan for sovereignty” arrangement in one of its avatars.

The onset of the pandemic has made many of these strategies more visible, even as it highlighted the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead for China.

China’s global dominance strategies

For the past decade or more, China has pursued a dual strategy of co-opting post-war institutions while simultaneously pursuing its own brand of multilateralism through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and an assortment of formal and informal fora, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Three approaches guide China’s strategy: Building global influence and prestige; shaping and/or altering key norms, standards, and processes; and creating the capacity to withstand pressure for selectively disregarding international rules.

The fruits of these efforts were visible amid the pandemic, most controversially at the WHO, which struggled to balance its commitment towards transparency and accountability, and its operational reliance on and systematic infiltration by China. Under cover of the pandemic, China has made more significant inroads as well. In April 2020, China was appointed to the influential United Nations Human Rights Council (HNRC) consultative group, which plays a crucial role in selecting global monitors for free speech, arbitrary detention and forced disappearances—the very rights that Beijing crushed in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

One aspect of this ploy of the Communist Party of China (that effectively and absolutely owns the country) that often goes unnoticed in India is China’s leadership in technology standard-setting organisations. Over the past decade, Beijing has improved its representation in, and submissions to, the technical committees and sub-committees of organisations like the International Organisation for Standardisation and the International Electrotechnical Commission. In March 2020, China’s Standardisation Administration published an innocuous document outlining the elements of a more ambitious strategy known as China Standards 2035. The 15-year blueprint will chart a pathway for China to dominate standards in emerging industries, giving it the ability to set the terms of international trade and even define the relationship between technology and society globally.

Augmenting China’s influence in international organisations and standard-setting bodies is its global media and narrative management strategy—an essential facet of “discourse power”

Augmenting China’s influence in international organisations and standard-setting bodies is its global media and narrative management strategy—an essential facet of “discourse power”. Chairman Xi alluded to this in a recent speech, calling for China’s media to develop an “international voice”. The research in our book highlighted what scholars called China’s policy of “borrowing a boat to go out into the ocean”. In other words, China’s use of paid inserts and large advertisements in newspapers allows it to propagate its narratives. Two recent reports provide insight into how significantly these efforts have evolved and intensified.

The first, by the Associated Press and the Oxford Internet Institute, describes China’s use of bots and fake social media accounts to amplify its “wolf warrior” diplomats and their proxies online. While China has previously used these tactics in Taiwan and Hong Kong, such operations have taken on a global scope amid the pandemic. Beijing’s appetite for misinformation, exemplified famously by Zhao Lijian’s claim that the coronavirus originated outside China, only exacerbated the challenge. The second, from the International Federation of Journalists, posits that Beijing’s strategy of syndication appears to be paying off. Over the year, its inserts into local media, increasingly in vernacular, along with a more engaged diplomatic community, have bolstered its visibility in the developing world.

Beyond its media strategy, China continues to fund educational institutions through opaque means, sometimes with attached costs to academic freedom. The Communist Party also increasingly hosts foreign diplomats and security officials for training programmes on “information management” and sponsors ruling party politicians around the world to attend training sessions on party building and governance. In 2020, under pressure from Western scrutiny, Beijing rebranded its infamous Confucius Institutes and handed over operations to a ‘non government organisation’ defined by the party. However, the US and Europe aren’t necessarily the targets of its educational and cultural investments. A report from Aid Data in 2018 revealed that countries that are more aligned with China’s foreign policy receive the bulk of its largesse. While it is unclear yet what gains have accrued to Beijing from such initiatives, they represent a formidable institutionalised apparatus to export its ideology and political practices.

The Communist Party also increasingly hosts foreign diplomats and security officials for training programmes on “information management” and sponsors ruling party politicians around the world to attend training sessions on party building and governance

Backdoor entry into the EU

Finally, we had highlighted China’s strategy of building new coalitions and undermining existing ones. Nowhere was this more apparent than Europe, where Beijing’s 17 + 1 platform for engaging with Central and East European (CEE) nations had triggered concern about its “divide and rule” tactics. To some extent, China’s investments in the region have paid off— with countries like Greece and Hungary scuttling the EU’s efforts to criticise China’s violations of international law in the South China Sea and the passing of the national security law abuses in Hong Kong.

2020 dampened this momentum for China—and demonstrated that large powers can still secure their peripheries. Several East and Central European leaders expressed dissatisfaction with the pace of investments and many were no-shows at the China-led forum. Many have also signed onto the US’s Clean Network Initiative, intended to prevent the entry of China’s 5G companies into key markets. The Baltic states, meanwhile, were more apprehensive about Russia than they were keen on Chinese investments.

Nevertheless, the 17 + 1 platform is but one instrument in China’s more global “perverse diplomacy” toolkit, and writing it off is premature. It marks a permanent presence that China now enjoys at the EU’s doorstep, one that the CEE can always leverage for better terms from Brussels. At the very least, China is now a voice in domestic EU debates.

China also hosts a web of high-level forums and summits in nearly every part of the world, including the Arab states, Africa, Latin America, and the ASEAN. Beijing’s vaccine diplomacy has won it praise in most of these geographies—especially in the face of Western absence and selfish acts of the past year. These forums augment and bolster various initiatives, ranging from China’s infrastructure investments to promoting its technology propositions. And its economic presence and investments are buying it diplomatic support as well. For instance, the support of African states has been crucial for China when its record in Xinjiang and Hong Kong was questioned in the UN in 2020 and 2019.

When looking at the pandemic in retrospect, Chinese leaders will likely see parallels to the 2008 financial crisis—one more milestone in the long decline of the West, and China’s rise. Beijing robustly managed the pandemic at home and stepped up to provide global public goods. To be sure, it faces new headwinds: Public opinion of China has plummeted in the West, the Biden administration is gearing up for great power competition, the EU has ‘frozen’ its latest investment deal with China, and institutions like the G7 are stepping up to offer alternatives to the BRI.

Public opinion of China has plummeted in the West, the Biden administration is gearing up for great power competition, the EU has ‘frozen’ its latest investment deal with China, and institutions like the G7 are stepping up to offer alternatives to the BRI

Elsewhere, the message from China over the past year is resilience and continuity. It remains committed to an alternative form of globalisation via the BRI. Its influence over international institutions will only grow, proportional to its wealth and power. Beijing’s media is increasingly savvy in projecting and protecting its core interests. Further, contrary to the perception that China is “friendless”, it can call upon nations to support it when it matters. And even when there is pushback, it is often haphazard. The recently announced “Build Back Better World”, while grand in intent, struggles with the contradictions within the group on their assessment of the Middle Kingdom. Key countries have chosen trade over security and valuations over values in their engagement with China.

The future of the Indo-China relationship 

Where does this leave India? Our book warned that Doklam was unlikely to be the last border confrontation between the two Asian powers. We argued that it opened a new tense period between India and China—an Asian Cold War. The Galwan Valley Clash confirmed the advent of a new era of high altitude faceoffs with possible ramifications in the oceans as well. This rift has only grown wider amid the pandemic. China’s belligerence in the Himalayas, and India’s restriction on Chinese technology platforms as well as its alignment with coalitions competing with China have all but cemented contestation. This will drive engagement in the years ahead.

New Delhi will confront a more fundamental dilemma: On the one hand, political tensions with China will remain high. But on the other, it is dependent on trade with China for its economic objectives—a dependence that will likely remain given the adverse economic consequences of the pandemic. Indeed, data published by Chinese customs officials revealed that trade with India boomed in 2021, even as Beijing appears to be consolidating its position in the Himalayas. How India resolves this contradiction and builds a security posture that accounts for this will indeed define the relationship.

New Delhi needs clarity of thought and a national consensus on China. In the coming days, it will have to take a leaf out of the Chinese playbook and engage in trade with the one that seeks to do it harm. Its economic engagement must be alive to this and its security considerations immune from these entanglements. It must realise that it cannot trade or talk its way into a better relationship with Beijing. These are important but essentially sideshows to the principal theatre of engagement. Deceit and political muscularity is the new grammar of the bilateral that China has proffered. With limited recourse available, the time for India’s legendary ambiguity is long past.


PAX SINICA: Implications for the Indian Dawn, by Samir Saran and Akhil Deo, is available here.

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The simultaneous rise of India and China will define the 21st century.

At a book launch event in Delhi, Samir Saran and EAM Subrahmanyam Jaishankar discuss this new moment that will undoubtedly redefine the tenants and principles of the international order.

In their book, Pax Sinica: Implications for the Indian Dawn, Samir Saran and Akhil Deo analyse the key events and policies that have shaped the Asian Century since the elevation of General Secretary Xi Jinping. From the launch of the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank to the unveiling of the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s proposition presents a contested model of cooperation that is rearranging regional and sub-regional political alignments. India, amongst others, is responding to these developments to safeguard its own room to maneuver.