Insights

Italy and India consolidate the link between the Mediterranean and the Indo-Pacific

Rome and New Delhi revive their strategic partnership: the Defence and Security sectors are at the heart of cooperation, but the scope is broader.

On 2 March, on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of bilateral relations between Italy and India, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni went on a state visit to New Delhi, where she was welcomed by her counterpart, PM Narendra Modi. The meeting represents the culmination of a rapprochement process after years of strained relations and, at the same time, an important step for Italy’s new Indo-Pacific policy.

In many respects, this is a historical turn. Italian foreign policy has always focused on three specific areas: Europe, the Atlantic and the Mediterranean – described as “the three circles”. However, in 2023, this exclusive focus appears to be no longer convenient, for a number of reasons. Asia and Africa’s impetuous growth in several areas, the consequent U.S. Pivot to China, the war in Ukraine and climate change are all large-scale challenges that make it necessary for Italy to have a comprehensive Grand Strategy at the global level, as opposed to concentrating on individual regional contexts. This is why Italy looks to India. It is the world’s largest democracy, the leading demographic power and the fifth largest economy on the planet and, in the near future, it will be able to count on a large middle class of educated young people. But above all, it is a country that shares with Italy the role of “bridge” between different areas. Both are peninsulas and both sit at the centre of maritime contexts that have commercial, energy, political, security and military relevance.

The Italian Prime Minister’s visit to India was not only intended to strengthen relations between Rome and New Delhi, but also to pave the way for increased Italian presence in the region. Indeed, it was on the margins of the Raisina Dialogue event – India’s main geopolitics conference, jointly inaugurated by Prime Ministers Modi and Meloni, who was guest of honour – that the signing of a strategic partnership between the two countries on defence and Italy’s membership in the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI) were announced.

In the area of defence cooperation, the agreement envisages a strengthening of ties between the Armed Forces of the two countries through the exchange of information and the implementation of military exercises and training courses. Likewise, from an industrial point of view, the two countries have envisioned new opportunities for development and joint production. In addition to reaffirming commitment against terrorism, both leaders emphasised the numerous mutual benefits derived from this initiative. On the one hand, India, which is highly dependent on Russian military imports, will be able to begin loosening ties with Moscow while developing a first-rate domestic industry. On the other hand, Italy could have access to a large and fast-growing market, which could be expanded from the military sector to other areas of equal strategic value.

In 2022 alone, trade between the two countries reached about €15 billion. According to Meloni and Modi, this figure is destined to grow, as are the sectors in which Rome and New Delhi will cooperate, which include space, energy, IT, semiconductors, as well as judicial cooperation and migration. It was with this in his mind that, just as the two heads of government were meeting, Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani co-chaired the India-Italy Business Round Table with Indian Minister of Trade and Industry Piyush Goyal. The event, which took place in New Delhi on the margins of the G20 ministerial meeting, saw the reaffirmation of the commitment to further increase trade between India and Italy.

Italian membership in the IPOI represented a further highlight of the Italian Prime Minister’s visit. Established in 2015 at the behest of PM Modi himself, the IPOI aims to foster and promote security, stability and sustainable development in the Indo-Pacific region with a specific focus on the maritime domain. In sharp contrast to China’s vision, India promotes a Free and Open Indo-Pacific, based on respect for territorial integrity and the principle of freedom of navigation. Italy, in this context, will contribute to the IPOI through its scientific and technological expertise. In addition to representing an important forum for multilateral cooperation, the initiative is also an opportunity for Rome to make its presence in the region permanent. Like in the case of the Global Combat Air Programme (GCAP) – signed by Italy with the United Kingdom and Japan - this mini-lateral agreement will allow Italy, whose policies have traditionally been largely confined in the Mediterranean, to project its influence into a context as distant as the Indo-Pacific, which is increasingly at the centre of international politics.

Through the strategic partnership with New Delhi, Rome is thus sending an important signal: this new cooperation will not only enable the revitalisation of ties between the two countries, but it will also provide a cornerstone for connecting the Mediterranean and the Indo-Pacific areas.

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