By Britta Petersen
Many books have been written about the somewhat underperforming “strategic partnership” between India and the European Union. A new anthology edited by Krishnan Srinivasan, former Indian foreign secretary, and Fredrik Erixon, director of the European Centre for International Political Economy in Brussels, is a refreshing addition to the list. It gives a no-nonsense account of the state of affairs between the two regions that together make up for 60 percent of the world’s population.
It is telling that the foreword written by former Spanish foreign minister Ana Palacio starts with a quotation from Rudyard Kipling about Europe’s effort to “civilize Asia”. We always believed that much has happened after the end of the Colonial era but still she comes to the conclusion that “Europe is hamstrung by a crucial weakness: It simply does not know Asia well enough”.
While this could be said about Asia’s relation to Europe as well, I doubt that it is the main problem. How long do two regions that have been interacting intensively with each other for centuries need to study each other to come to a meaningful policy? It is probably the time to unlearn much of what has been taken for granted. If not done consciously, the changing trajectory of international relations will do the trick.
But it seems that both sides are unable to overcome the spectres of the past. Europe that is going through an intense phase of insecurity about its own identity marked by the Greek crisis, the conflict with Russia over the Ukraine and the refugee crisis, tries to reassert itself by falling back to old habits. There is almost no chapter in the book that does not explicitly or implicitly complain about an “unwitting element of superiority in (European) literature (about Asia)”, as Srinivasan and Erixon put it in their introduction.
‘The old continent’s political psyche and it’s aspiration to be a normative superpower, largely remains intact (...) but Asian countries are allergic to any opinion that other powers should prescribe their policy preferences for them.” For Europeans, this book therefore is an important reminder that its needs to deal with its Colonial past in a more vigilant and self-critical way. The fear of a relative decline that is sometimes reinforced by triumphalist slogans of an “Asian Century” on the other side does not help in this regards.
But as Srinivasan and Erixon point out: “The rise of emerging Asia does not presume the decline of Europe. Both Europe and emerging Asia are economic heavyweights and regional powers with wide global interests. To safeguard their futures, they should be opposed to instability and welcome a benevolent transition to an equitable world order.”
Unfortunately, the current situation in Europe that is characterised by intense fire-fighting on several fronts does not leave much time for long-term strategic thinking outside the box. James Mayall, professor emeritus from Cambridge criticises Britain’s inward-looking policy. But the same could be said about every other European country: “(...)notwithstanding the economic case for prioritising foreign policy in general and the country’s relations with emerging Asia in particular, the focus of political attention and debate is even more inward-looking than usual”.
Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury, a former foreign minister of Bangladesh therefore comes to the conclusion that “(...) the efforts of each of these groupings (Europe and Asia) to attain the goals of a common identity (...) will take some time yet, and until then, international relations will largely comprise inter-state relations, as between the countries of Europe and Asia, including South Asia.”
The bilateral relations between some European and Asian countries therefore seem to be far ahead of institutional relations with the EU. Given the structural restrains of the EU’s foreign policy and the wide range of diverging interests in Asian countries, this will most probably remain the case for a long time. But it need not be an obstacle as long as bilateral relations are evolving.
A recent visit by German Chancellor Angela Merkel to New Delhi along with a large delegation of cabinet ministers and corporate representatives shows that, despite the acute refugee crisis, the German government has realised the importance to push forward its relations with India.
It is regrettable that the book does not contain any chapter written by authors from the largest European powers, namely Germany and France. In fact, the only texts by authors of Euro-zone member-states are Ana Palacio’s short foreword and an interesting Eastern European perspective given by Agnieszka Kuszewska, assistant professor at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Warsaw.
Asia is more diversely represented with authors from India, China, South-Korea, Thailand, Indonesia and Bangladesh. But the book remains largely within the realm of English-language interpretations of Europe that dominates at least South Asia. A consolation for readers from other linguistic backgrounds it that it is precisely valuable because it reflects the dominant narrative.
Kuszewska also reminds us that: “The EU as a unified actor consists of two parts of Europe, which have different historical experiences with Asia in the twentieth century. This potential has been sadly neglected because the Central European states have not contributed significantly to the EU’s strategic or economic ties with emerging Asia.”
For all these reasons, the former Chinese diplomat Wang Yiwei points out that “the China-EU Comprehensive Strategic Partnership is (...) neither a partnership nor strategic nor comprehensive”. And the same can be said about EU partnership agreements with other Asian countries as well. Wang believes that the Chinese “Silk Road Economic Belt Initiative” and the “Maritime Silk Road” are steps into the direction of a “new type of Comprehensive Strategic Partnership”.
This might or might not be the case. As this book shows, there is a lot of room for improvement in the relations between Asia and the European Union and given the fast changing international environment, creative initiatives are the need of the hour.
As M.K. Narayanan, former Indian national security advisor, writes: “The volume does not minimize the difficulties encountered in Europe-Asia strategic and other relations. Nevertheless, the authors feel that the potential for cooperation between Europe and emerging Asia can provide an unprecedented opportunity to shape the future of the world.”