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Italy and India: between ambitions and common interests. The importance of a strategic relationship

2023 marked 75 years since the establishment of diplomatic ties between Italy and India. In March, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Italy’s PM Giorgia Meloni met in New Delhi. This was followed by various meetings between officials from the two countries, including a visit to Italy by Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar. The importance of dialogue and collaboration between New Delhi and Rome is underlined by their joint interests, ambitions, attention to developments in Africa and the Global South, and by Italy’s new strategy in the Indo-Pacific, which are the focus of this report

The meeting between Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and her Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, in March, was rightly hailed for its political relevance, also as it was part of the celebrations marking the 75th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

The meeting was particularly significant as bilateral relations had appeared to be “frozen” over the past few years due to the dispute on the case of the Italian marines, which hindered the strengthening of diplomatic ties, in spite of existing sound bi-lateral economic relations.

The fact that that India and Italy have many interests in common and can travel a long way together clearly emerged from the meeting. This evidence has been bolstered by bilateral ministerial meetings held in the following months, culminating in the G20 summit in Delhi in September. This was later confirmed by the two days of intense high-level meetings that the Indian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, had in Italy.

India and Italy have a lot in common and have a wide range of shared interests in different fields. They are “natural bridges” between different regions, capable of keeping the door open to dialogue with a variety of actors at the international level, even in areas that are heavily affected by the winds of the current crises. It was no surprise that Minister Jaishankar described the strategic partnership with Italy as “an element of stability in the current uncertain international scenario.” But above all, the two countries can strengthen their bilateral relations at a time in which both are paying close attention to each other’s home region: India to Europe and Italy to Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific.

Italy and India, 75 years of diplomatic relations

The diplomatic ties between Italy and India date back to 1947, the year of Indian independence. It was as early as 1953, when Jawaharlal Nehru, the First Prime Minister and founder of modern India, made his first diplomatic trip to Italy. However, it would take several years for an Italian head of state to visit India, under the presidency of Oscar Luigi Scalfaro.

Since 1947, there have been several occasions for the representatives of the two governments to meet, cementing mutual relations in a variety of fields. Over the years, the positions of the two countries in global history have evolved. This was especially the case with India, which was once simply described as a large developing country and is now considered as a rising power and an important, if not strategic, actor with whom the majority of the world’s major industrial countries, as well as those in the Global South, wish to establish stable relations. This is why, during Italian PM Meloni’s visit to India, it was decided to elevate relations between Italy and India to the level of strategic partnership. This is a sign of the importance that Italian diplomacy, its government and the entire national system attribute to bilateral relations with India.

The importance of India for Italy becomes particularly evident if we look at economic data – and especially at India’s growth data. This is why strengthening investments, trade and collaboration can benefit both countries. India is the world’s largest democracy, leading demographic power and fifth largest economy, with large margins for growth by 2030. Its fortune is linked to the composition of Indian society in the near future, which will consist of a large, young and highly educated middle class. These are three key factors that have always been considered necessary to the existence of a large domestic market and profitable periods of development in all fields. Furthermore, India is the country with the largest number of emigrants in the world, who, through their remittances, make a vital economic contribution to the national GDP. The Indian community in Italy alone, which is primarily distributed in the northern regions, currently numbers more than 160,000 people. It is the fifth-largest foreign community in the country and represents a significant resource for the Italian economy, particularly in certain sectors such as the primary sector.

In March 2023, the India-Italy Business Round Table was held in New Delhi, in parallel with the bilateral meeting between both countries’ heads of state. The event was co-hosted by the Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Antonio Tajani, and the Indian Minister of Commerce and Industry, Piyush Goyal, and aimed at exploring ways for increasing bilateral trade and investment. On 13 April 2023, in Rome, Minister Goyal, along with the Minister of Industry and Made in Italy, Alfonso Urso, chaired the “CEO Forum”, in the presence of representatives of leading companies from both countries. In 2022, total bi-lateral trade between the two countries amounted to about €15 billion, two third of which was represented by Italy’s imports from India. As highlighted in this year’s meetings, this figure, which already represents a 42 percent increase over 2021, is set to rise further, also thanks to the areas in which New Delhi and Rome will pursue new forms of economic cooperation. These include sectors such as defense, energy, high technology, space, artificial intelligence, semiconductors, advanced manufacturing and strategic supply chains.

The most recent visit to Italy of the Indian Minister of Foreign Affairs could provide an interesting opportunity to resume dialogue on a variety of issues that are already on the agenda. The first meeting, on 2 November, with Ministers Crosetto and Tajani, and the following meetings with Minister Urso and the President of the Republic, Sergio Mattarella, explored the possibilities of a constructive long-term strategic convergence, not only from an economic point of view. The parties discussed existing partnership in defence and security, as well as space cooperation, scientific research and culture. These are all fields in which Italy has, potentially, a wealth of experience, expertise and initiatives to offer. India, likewise, can bring to the table not only significant skills and capabilities, but also a strong desire to establish itself as one of the world’s leading players. Just a month before this meeting, India’s Defense Minister, Rajnath Singh, and his Italian counterpart, Guido Crosetto, met in Rome to discuss the strong links between the Mediterranean and the Indo-Pacific, as well as how mutual military cooperation was essential for dealing jointly with the various crises that threaten international security, from Africa to the Near East, via the Red Sea and the Strait of Hormuz.

This means that, in addition to various common economic and commercial interests in areas of strategic importance, such as space, energy and technological transition, both countries share the need and intention to strengthen mutual dialogue and cooperation, for reasons related to both the stability of the international context in which they operate - marked by increasing tensions and crises – and to certain individual strategic issues, such as the future stability of the African continent, the Indo-Mediterranean corridor, the crisis in the Near East and investments in defence and in technologically advanced sectors.

A collaboration with Italy on some of these issues, even in a purely European perspective, could be a valuable asset to India’s strategy of growth and global expansion. As recently demonstrated, Italy, due to its strategic geographic location, can share some of the interests that India holds particularly dear today (such as African affairs). Rome can especially play a significant role in the revival of the IMEC initiative, which is seen by New Delhi (and Washington) as a concrete alternative to China’s Silk Road and capable of bringing together large growing powers such as India and Saudi Arabia. In a moment in which the growing tensions and shadows of war in the Near East are threatening its implementation, Italy’s ability to act as a mediator and its role as a “bridge” in the Broader Mediterranean region can revive the IMEC initiative.

The IMEC is part of India’s ambitions to strategically connect the country and the Indo-Pacific region to the Mediterranean and Europe, while also forging stronger alliances with the Gulf powers, which would thus play a pivotal role in the region. In this regard, it should be noted that China has recently become a very active player in the Gulf, a strategic area for both Beijing and New Delhi, particularly for energy. As a result, increased Indian activity in the region could also help mitigate China’s unwieldy presence. The IMEC might also strengthen regional cooperation and collaboration with Israel and, on a global level, with the United States, which is interested in this project, due to its potential to be an alternative to the Belt and Road Initiative. Italy, notwithstanding its exit from the BRI, would thus assume the importance of a key junction point in the new project, thanks in part to its position at the center of the Mediterranean, able to unite not only East and West, but also the North and South of the world. Along these lines, the strategic investment in the relationship with India might become a strength for Europe and the Atlantic.

The rise of India and its new role as a great power

Experts list India as one of the great global powers that will shape the world in the future, often citing its rapid political and economic growth, alongside China’s, as a keystone of the emerging balances of our time. The return to the international scene of the two great Asian giants – lands of ancient empires and civilizations – has represented a novelty for many. However, while China’s achievements have now generally been accepted as a fact, the Indian growth pattern appears to have only changed in recent times. And, perhaps as a result of certain specific events, the current year has played a significant role in the long Indian run towards development.

While in 1979 the economies of China and India were still almost the same, in terms of GDP, the two countries’ economic paths diverged dramatically in the following years, with China leaving India far behind. Today, China has firmly established itself as the world’s second largest economy, showing far more vital indicators than India. However, despite falling behind China, India is now rapidly stepping up its development, becoming a country that is thriving not only economically, but also politically and militarily. In spring 2023, India has become the world’s leading demographic power, leaving behind the more aged China’s population and reaching a population size of 1.4 billion, roughly three times that of Europe. India can rely on a population which is not only the largest in the world, but also very young, dynamic, active, educated and with high expectations. India’s population live in an area that today has enormous potential for growth and further expansion. Despite the large pockets of poverty and underdevelopment that remain in many parts of the country, still widespread social tensions and divisions and the cultural rifts that run through and frequently divide its complex society, India looks today as a young and ambitious country that is now aiming to consolidate its economic growth, establishing itself among the world’s leading industrial powers, with Narendra Modi’s promised goal of becoming the world’s third economic power by 2030, after China and the United States. Additionally, in 2023, India’s GDP has overtaken the United Kingdom, making it the world's fifth largest economy. This was more than a symbolic achievement since the United Kingdom is the country from which India, once the “Pearl of the British Empire”, earned independence, after a protracted colonial interlude which ended 75 years ago.

India’s prominence in the new global context

Historically, India has always been trying to cultivate various channels of dialogue and cooperation with as many international actors as possible. Even in the recent Ukraine crisis, it maintained a certain equidistance from the parties involved, managing to hold solid relations with the United States and Western countries, on the one hand, and Russia on the other. Moscow, in particular, remains today an important partner for New Delhi, as it was in the past.

In fact, at the time of Jawaharlal Nehru, India used to be a leading country in the “non-aligned” front and, during the Cold War, it had a very solid relationship with the USSR. This has also continued with the Russian Federation, especially, in the defence and energy sectors, and it has also been functional to counter China and Pakistan’s power in the region. On the other hand, India has been developing a more complex and articulated relationship with the United States, characterised by alternating phases.

In more recent years, particularly after the end of the Cold War, the importance of this relationship has grown, with Washington has recognised to New Delhi special relevance, not only in the framework of the collaboration initiated with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD – made up of the United States, India, Japan and Australia) to counter the growing influence of China in Asia, but also as an actor to interact with in order to jointly manage global macro-issues.

In fact, India is an actor that can move dynamically on multiple issues, with a growing leading role in multilateral fora, by dealing with a variety of different actors and by using international organisations, such as the BRICS, G20, I2U2, QUAD, SCO, UN, as places to cement its international projection.

In recent years, and particularly in 2023, India demonstrated a remarkable capacity of expanding its political and diplomatic reach in many regions of the world, succeeding in becoming a genuine protagonist and a new point of reference for many countries who are eager to emerge in the new multipolar global context. By exploiting the possibilities offered by the flexibility of the multipolar system, in which countries operate in a permanent condition of competition and cooperation with each other – so that today’s rivals on one issue can become tomorrow’s partners on another – India has been able to leverage opportunities to increase its presence and visibility. One of the areas where this has been most evident is the Near East. In this region, also thanks to special relationships with both the Gulf monarchies and Israel, India now finds itself in the position of being a regional competitor of China. This was clearly demonstrated by recent events in Gaza.

As for India’s relations with Africa, Modi facilitated the African Union (AU)’s permanent membership in the G20, which brings together the world’s twenty leading economies. This occurred during the G20 annual meeting held in India. This result is very important for India as it strives to be a leading interlocutor for the ambitious African countries, which have long been seeking new shores to emerge. The AU membership in the G20 is also a success for the Italian Government, which in various international fora, including the EU and the United Nations, as well as bilateral summits, has been trying to promote Africa’s unexpressed potential through the development of long-term projects and investments on the ground. These initiatives are part of the “Mattei Plan” and, as in the case of India, fit into Italy’s attempts to broaden the horizons of its foreign policy by positioning itself as the key European interlocutor for the countries of the Global South. In South Asia, the growing relationship between China and Pakistan remains a sensitive issue for the security of the entire Asian continent.

The dispute over the region of Kashmir, and the one over 3,500 kilometers of borders with China in the Himalayas, cyclically resurface with their heavy history of rivalries and tensions. But the far deeper and more complex differences between these three Asian giants go beyond the unresolved issues over their borders and the resources present there.

India’s rise is a potential threat to China’s hegemonic aspirations in Asia, especially in the southern part of the continent and on the maritime front of the Indo-Pacific theatre. Similarly, India has the perception that the tight Sino-Pakistani alliance and the various Chinese trade and infrastructural projects in the Indian Ocean and in the heart of the Asian continent are an attempt by China to encircle it. Being all nuclear powers, India, China and Pakistan see trade with the Gulf as a strategic priority to be protected, especially with regard to their respective national energy security. At the same time, huge Chinese investments for the development of the port of Gwadar, on the Pakistan-Iranian border, have raised concern in India, as did the setting up of a Chinese naval military base in Djibouti and the various forms of geo-economic influence that China has exercised in recent years towards the countries of Southern Asia, first and foremost Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, but also the Maldives and Myanmar. These are all countries with which New Delhi is trying to improve its bilateral relations and recover the ground lost to Beijing over the years.

China and India remain distinct in many important elements. They have a complex mutual relationship of rivalry, while – at the same time – a need to find points of convergence and cooperation in specific areas, such as the fight against terrorism. But beyond the different foreign policy strategies, there is also a substantial difference of a political nature: India is a democratic country, while China leads the front of the autocratic ones.

Finally, the relationship of India with the United States – which has rekindled in recent months, not least with Indian Prime Minister Modi’s important visit to the United States in June 2023 – represents a great opportunity for the leadership of both countries, and something that both US President Biden and Indian PM Modi want to leverage, despite internal difficulties posed by their respective political contexts. For India, the possibility to cooperate and talk with the United States, in a moment in which the latter needs solid and reliable interlocutors, especially in the Indo-Pacific, is an opportunity not to be missed. Defence, new technologies and space are now among the sectors in which the collaboration between India, the US and Western countries, including Italy, can see the most significant steps forward. This opportunity looks particularly clear in the light of the process of enfranchisement from Russia, described above, which echoes the heavy legacy of 20th century relations with the USSR.

In high-tech sectors, India holds a stock of significantly grown technology, as demonstrated by the recent success in sending the Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft to the Moon and in putting into service, at the end of 2022, the INS Vikrant – the first-ever locally built aircraft carrier. Above all, New Delhi has understood that in order to have a weight in the third millennium’s great powers competition, the ability to keep up with fast technological innovations is indispensable.

India will certainly continue to cooperate with the US and European countries, in the coming years. However, it is unlikely that the country will cut its ties with Russia completely, or will take a more markedly pro-Western stance on certain events, such as the invasion of Ukraine. But it will be able to play an important role in countering China’s expansionism in Asia and the Global South, by also strengthening economic and political relations with the West.

If in the past, during the era of the non-aligned countries and the Third World bloc, India played a leading role, often in a position of criticism or tension with the US, today it is open to building new forms of collaboration and dialogue. This is one of the changes that have emerged in recent years in its role within the Global South and its approach to relations with the US and the West: this is also a great opportunity that Italy can try to leverage for its ambitions in the Indo-Pacific, Africa and the Mediterranean.

Italy’s strategy between the Mediterranean and the Indo-Pacific

Due to recent changes in the international context, Italy is also pursuing a policy of strategic reorientation of its international action. This is not in antithesis with Its historical interest, which sees the Broader Mediterranean and the Euro-Atlantic space as the main cornerstones of its foreign and defense policy. Rather, it is an acknowledgement that today’s world requires a broader approach, which should also be functional to strengthening the country’s presence in those historically consolidated areas.

Climate change, global pandemics, fragile critical supply chains as well as the fight against terrorism, piracy and illegal migration flows cannot be managed unilaterally by individual countries. Similarly, the various theatres of war close to Italy and the negative influence of external actors in areas of utmost importance for Rome, such as the Sahel, North Africa, the Red Sea or the Near East, make it indispensable for Rome to work not only in perfect coordination with NATO and the European Union, but also through a shared response with new and different actors. Additionally, this requires an extension of the area of action of Italian foreign and defence policy to more distant regions, which is also important to meet the demands of Italy’s western allies.

Rome is seeking to improve its ties with the Gulf monarchies and intends to invest in the development of Africa. The Italian Government also looks with the utmost attention at the Balkans and the Near East, as two other macro-areas of interest, in continuity with a consolidated presence. Additionally, by moving eastwards, it is now clear that the dynamics of the Indo-Pacific, although seemingly distant, have concrete repercussions on European and Italian security and economic interests.

It is not surprising that at the NATO summit in Vilnius and at the G7 meeting in Hiroshima, the Indo-Pacific theatre appeared as a new matter of fundamental importance for the Western allies, from which a new awareness towards China should derive. On these occasions, the decision was made to adopt a de-risking approach towards Beijing, which means: by keeping the dialogue open on certain individual issues, countries need to pay attention to the economic and trade levers that China can use to create dependencies that can threat their national security.

During the year, the Italian Government took concrete steps to implement its new Indo-Pacific policy. On the Silk Road issue, for example, it gave signs of closure to Beijing regarding the continuation of Italian cooperation in the project. On the contrary, bilateral relations with India and, above all, Japan – China’s two main antagonists in Asia – were clearly accelerated. India represents an increasingly important partner for Italy in many economic sectors, also with a view to strengthening its presence in the Indo-Pacific region. This was also demonstrated by the recent launch, together with Tokyo and London, of the GCAP project for the sixth-generation Tempest fighter.

Similarly, the defence sector has been a useful tool for Rome to deepen ties with other important players in the region, such as Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines, but also Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia. For example, the recent Naval Diplomacy campaign of the offshore patrol vessel Francesco Morosini in the Indo-Pacific or the announcement of the future deployment in the region of the aircraft carrier Cavour, for training activities with other allied navies in the area, should be read in this light.

The high-level talks held by Italy with the leaders of countries such as Bangladesh, Australia and South Korea should also be understood in a similar way. Within this framework, India remains an undisputed protagonist of the Italian newly set strategic horizon.

The importance of the relationship with India for Italy and the West

There are several factors to explain why Italy and other Western countries’ wish to strengthen relations with India.

For Italy and the West, India is not just a major economic partner of growing global demographic relevance or a candidate to become a leading country in many industrial sectors.

India is an established political reality in the current and future global scenario. Its international projection, moreover, will certainly grow even beyond the Asian region. Thanks to its openness and capacity to hold a multi-level dialogue, it can be a reliable mediator in some of today’s complex geopolitical games. Its growing weight could represent an alternative to China not only in Asia. The eventual success of the IMEC project may be one of the decisive challenges to prove the capabilities of its new global leadership.

Given its natural projection towards the Mediterranean and Africa, Italy may have several points of common interest with the Asian giant. Both countries, for different (but not distant) reasons, can have a great capacity for dialogue with the actors of the Global South. Investing in mutual collaboration, not only on an economic, industrial and scientific level, but also on a political and diplomatic level, can be useful for both countries. For Rome, it can certainly be a further step toward strengthening its international projection, both towards the Global South and the Indo-Pacific. It is Italy’s new interest in the Indo-Pacific that makes India an indispensable partner to pursue those national strategic interests that increasingly require international alliances.

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