Italy is the latest entrant in India’s flagship initiative towards building a sustainable and prosperous Indo-Pacific region, the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI). Italy has joined, to take co-lead on one of the seven pillars of the IPOI i.e. ‘Science, Technology and Academic Cooperation’. Recently, there has been significant upgrade in Italy’s relationship with India, with the relationship between India and Italy becoming a ‘Strategic Partnership’ in March 2023, during Italian Prime Minister Georgia Meloni’s visit to New Delhi, on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of bilateral relations between their two countries. Italy is the next country in Europe after France, Germany and The Netherlands, to be taking a keen interest in engagements in the Indo-Pacific region and a gradual upswing in its ties with India is an important part of its recent Indo-Pacific pivot.
Italy’s Recent Indo-Pacific Pivot
Italy, unlike France, does not have overseas territories in the Indo-Pacific, but it does have an interest in the security and stability of the wider Indo-Pacific region. Italy does not have its own formal strategy for the region, however, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of Italy, in the document released in January 2022, titled The Italian Contribution to The EU Strategy For The Indo-Pacific, has highlighted that Italy strongly supports the EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific 2021, as the “optimal framework for conducting its foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific, a region where Italy’s engagement has been increasing in light of its geopolitical and economic centrality”.[i] Rome has reiterated its willingness to work with regional partners in seven priority areas mentioned in EU’s Strategy which includes: sustainable and inclusive prosperity; green transition; ocean governance; digital growth; connectivity, security and defence and human security.[ii]
The EU’s Strategy for the Indo-Pacific is an acknowledgement that the strategic and economic interests of Europe are intrinsically linked to the Indo-Pacific. Certainly as a large chunk of Europe-Asia trade passes through the critical chokepoints located in the Indo-Pacific region, any threat to the vital sea lanes and bottlenecks, and any conflict in the region affecting the free flow of commerce will have an impact on Europe’s and also Italy’s prosperity and security.
As the Italian PM Georgia Meloni, speaking at the Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi in March 2023, said that the “Indo-Pacific has become a crucial center of gravity for the global economy, the Europe and Indo-Pacific are more interconnected than ever before.”…And what happens in the Indo-Pacific has direct repercussions in Europe and vice-versa.
Italy is a maritime nation, given its geography, its long coastline, it serves “as a strategic European hub” with the fourth most extensive merchant shipping fleet in Europe, and the third biggest European fishing fleet, and also the maritime sector contributing to a significant percentage of country’s GDP.[iii]
In recent years, in a bid to further its engagements in the region, Italy has made efforts to deepen its relationships with other regional countries like Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and Indonesia. Also, Rome has been making its presence felt in the multilateral forums of the region within the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), it has entered into a Dialogue Partnership and in the ASEAN, it is a Development Partner. Clearly, Italy is taking the Indo-Pacific region much more seriously in recent years.
Recent Developments in Italy-India Relations
An important aspect of Italy’s Indo-Pacific outreach has been its efforts to deepen ties with India. Italy is one of the important partners for India in Europe. The 75th year of diplomatic relationship between the two countries has been marked with significant development towards further enhancing the bilateral relationship, which is focused on “shared cultural values, commitment to foster economic growth, collaboration in the fields of green energy, science and technology, defence and marked by convergence on regional and global issues”.[iv]
The State visit of Italian PM Georgia Meloni in March 2023 was first such high-level visit from Italy to India after five years.
PM Narendra Modi during his speech at the Joint Press Meet with Prime Minister of Italy said “We welcome Italy's active participation in the Indo-Pacific….Its participation in the IPOI will enable us to identify concrete themes for enhancing our cooperation in the Indo-Pacific”.[v]
During the bilateral talks, discussions on enhancing defence cooperation were also held. The two sides aim to further enhance defence ties by concluding an agreement soon.
During her visit, PM Meloni, also called on President of India, Droupadi Murmu, where President Murmu noted that healthcare, climate change and digital technology should be the focus areas to strengthen partnership between the two countries, at a time when India is the G20 Chair and Italy is the upcoming Chair for G7.[vi]
Earlier in 2020, during the COVID pandemic, a virtual Prime Ministerial level Summit was held between the two countries, where PM Modi and his then Italian counterpart Giuseppe Conte, discussed wide range of issues and, coinciding with the Virtual Summit, the two countries signed 15 MoU/agreements in the areas like energy, infrastructure, fisheries and shipbuilding.[vii]
A significant development in the year 2021 was the launch of the ‘India-Italy-Japan’ trilateral in June 2021, with an aim to work towards the security, stability, prosperity and multilatralism of the Indo-Pacific region. It is the second trilateral that India has, in the Indo-Pacific region, involving a European country, after the ‘India-France-Australia’ trilateral.[viii] Italy has upgraded its relations with both India and Japan to ‘Strategic Partnership’ this year. Also now with Italy joining the IPOI, both Italy and Japan are part of India’s IPOI. So, this minilateral should be taken forward as it provides a good platform to further strengthen cooperation in the areas of common interest among the three countries, in the context of the rising salience of the Indo-Pacific.
Recently, once again the Prime Ministers of India and Italy held a bilateral meeting, on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in New Delhi on 9 September 2023, where the two sides agreed to further strengthen cooperation in the areas like defence and new and emerging technologies. Italy joined both the significant initiatives, launched on the margins of the G20 Summit, the ‘Global Biofuel Alliance’ and the ‘India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor’. Speaking at the ‘Partnership for Global Infrastructure Investment’ (PGII) event during the G20, PM Meloni said that “the launch of the new corridor, is a milestone in strengthening global interconnections, with an equal approach, to create new opportunities and prosperity”….Italy wants to contribute to “building bridges between the Mediterranean and Indo-Pacific, also in the fields of energy and digital connectivity via Africa and the Arabian Gulf”. [ix]
Italy has also joined the ‘International Solar Alliance’ (ISA), in 2021, which was the year of the Italian Presidency of G20 and co-Presidency of COP26, augmenting partnership with India and other participating countries to work towards a greener economy. [x]
On the economic front, bilateral trade between India and Italy has substantially increased; it was estimated at 4.9 billion Euros in 2022, with a 42% growth over 2021.[xi] Italy is the fifth largest trading partner of India in the EU. Italy which is looking at supply chain consolidation and diversification in its post-pandemic recovery, sees India as an important partner in the region.
Naval interactions between the two countries have also strengthened in recent years. In July 2021, Indian Navy ships conducted a two-day naval exercise with the Italian Navy in the Tyrrhenian Sea, off the western coast of Italy. It was called “Maritime Partnership Exercise” aimed at enhancing interoperability, project long range sustenance, share best practices, consolidating combined operations against maritime threats, and strengthening maritime security in the region. The exercise was conducted during the ongoing deployment of INS Tabar to Europe and Africa.[xii]
In July 2023, the navies of the two countries participated in the Passage Exercise in the Mediterranean. INS Chennai, deployed in the Mediterranean Sea, as part of Indian Navy’s endeavour to strengthen partnerships with like-minded navies, undertook the exercise with Italian Navy, to foster mutual trust and interoperability between the two navies, with a common goal of secure seas in the region.[xiii]
More recently, ITS Francesco Morosini, Italian Navy’s Multipurpose Offshore Patrol Vessel, arrived in Mumbai, for a port-call, from 10 to 14 August 2023. The vessel is on a five-month deployment in the Indo-Pacific region and had visited ports in Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, Japan, South Korea, and Bangladesh. The deployment is to demonstrate Italy’s commitment to the Indo-Pacific region and enhance mutual understanding with partner navies. This is the first Italian vessel to arrive in India since the 2012 Enrica Lexie case.[xiv] During this time, Italy's Ambassador to India, Vincenzo De Luca, said at a press conference that Italy will soon sign a bilateral pact in the defense sector to strengthen military ties. He said that, Italy is looking to contribute to India's programme of self-reliance, the "Make in India". Italy can also provide added value in areas such as torpedoes, helicopters, radars, electronic warfare, and shipyards. Italian companies have already signed agreements with shipyards in Kochi and Eastern Shipyard.[xv] The two countries are looking forwards to strengthen cooperation in defence technology, maritime security and space, with similar concerns in maritime domain.[xvi]
Maritime cooperation is a promising area for the two countries. The Joint Statement issued during PM Meloni’s State visit to India in March 2023 mentioned that “PM Meloni highlighted the opportunities for collaboration in ensuring maritime security, including by promoting India’s cooperation with the EU Naval Forces Operation ATALANTA”, in the North Western Indian Ocean.[xvii]
Italy is one of the partner countries with Indian Navy’s Information Fusion Centre- Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR) in Gurgaon, which aims at promoting collaborative maritime safety and security in the region by sharing information to combat non-traditional maritime safety and security threats, towards facilitating a reliable MDA environment in the Indian Ocean region.[xviii] Italy has sent naval officers to the IFC-IOR. Recently, in September 2023, a 21 member EU delegation led by an Italian naval officer visited the centre and discussed common challenges and avenues for collaboration.[xix]
The two countries can further enhance collaboration in the areas like Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA), HADR, marine scientific and technology research, capacity-building and overall contributing towards rules based maritime order in the region, based on international law, the UNCLOS in particular.
Italy joining the IPOI, is a significant step which will strengthen not only bilateral cooperation but also regional cooperation with other partner nations of the IPOI such as Australia, France, Indonesia, United Kingdom, Singapore, Japan and United States. The IPOI is a promising discourse seeking to build a community of stakeholders by creating partnerships with like-minded countries through practical cooperation in an open and inclusive manner for mitigating challenges especially in the maritime domain. There are several converging areas in the IPOI and the EU’s Strategy for the Indo-Pacific, which Italy strongly supports.
Therefore, Italy which has so far focused more on the Atlantic and European aspects in its foreign policy approaches has now begun to show its intent to look beyond its immediate geography. At the same time, there is also Italy’s growing concern about China in the broader European and Indo-Pacific region. There are reports about Italy’s intention to exit China’s BRI. In case this happens, it will be a significant policy shift for Rome. Geopolitical necessities are resulting in Italian policy makers, shaping and reshaping their relationships in Asia.
India-Italy partnership has witnessed significant positives recently. Both the countries have an interest in safe and secure maritime passage through the larger Indo-Pacific region. India’s vision for the Indo-Pacific region is all encompassing which stands for a ‘for a free, open, inclusive and rules based’ region, connected by secure seas, defined by international law, free from domination, and anchored in ASEAN centrality.
Italy also has reiterated its interest in a multilateral rules based order in the region, free and fair trade, sustainability, transparency and inclusiveness.[xx] There are, therefore, converging areas of interests and concern for the two countries in the region.
Recent developments show that there is a renewed interest in the relationship from both the sides. India and Italy can leverage their strategic positions in the Indian Ocean and in the Mediterranean, respectively, to promote connectivity, stability, energy security, freedom of navigation in the two maritime geographies, and therefore in the wider Indo-Pacific region.
*Dr. Pragya Pandey, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
[i] The Italian Contribution To The EU Strategy For The Indo-Pacific, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of Italy, January 20, 2022, chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/https://www.esteri.it/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/THE_ITALIAN_CONTRIBUTION_TO_THE_EU_STRATEGY_FOR_THE_INDO_PACIFIC.pdf
[iii] “The geopolitical importance of maritime security for Italy”, Meeting with Giuseppe De Giorgi, Rome, 19 January 2015, https://www.aspeninstitute.it/en/attivita/geopolitical-importance-maritime-security-italy/
[iv] State Visit of Prime Minister of Italy to India (March 02-03, 2023), , https://www.mea.gov.in/incoming-visit-detail.htm?36306/State+Visit+of+Prime+Minister+of+Italy+to+India+March+0203+2023
[v] English translation of Address by Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi at the Joint Press Meet with Prime Minister of Italy
[vi] Prime Minister of Italy Calls on the President, Rashtrapati Bhavan : 02.03.2023, https://presidentofindia.nic.in/press_releases/prime-minister-italy-calls-president
[vii] India and Italy sign 15 agreements in various sectors; Reaffirm commitment to strengthen cooperation against common global challenges, November 7, 2020, https://newsonair.gov.in/News?title=PM-Modi%2C-Italian-PM-hold-Virtual-Bilateral-Summit&id=403762
[viii] India-Japan-Italy trilateral on strengthening Indo-Pacific Region, 18 June 2021, https://indbiz.gov.in/india-japan-italy-trilateral-on-strengthening-indo-pacific-region/
[ix] G20 Summit: President Meloni’s address at PGII event, Saturday, 9 September 2023, https://www.governo.it/en/articolo/g20-summit-president-meloni-s-address-pgii-event/23529
[x] Moving towards a greener economy Italy joins the International Solar Alliance, March 17, 2021, https://indbiz.gov.in/moving-towards-a-greener-economy-italy-joins-the-international-solar-alliance/#:~:text=On%20the%2017th%20of,presidency%20of%20COP26%20under%20Italy.
[xi] Italy to send naval patrol vessel to Indo-Pacific this year, says envoy, 10 April 2023, https://www.livemint.com/news/india/punjab-police-raids-premises-of-khalistani-extremist-lakhbir-singh-alias-landas-associates-amid-india-canada-row-11695635149607.html
[xii] INS Tabar concludes two-day naval exercise in Naples with the Italian Navy, July 7, 2021, https://frontline.thehindu.com/dispatches/ins-tabar-concludes-two-day-naval-exercise-in-naples-with-the-italian-navy/article35198981.ece
[xiii] Twitter, https://twitter.com/ANI/status/1684518606888124417
[xiv] Italian Patrol Vessel arrives in Mumbai for port call, August 11, 2023, https://indianexpress.com/article/cities/mumbai/italian-patrol-vessel-arrives-in-mumbai-for-port-call-8886719/
[xv] India and Italy to sign MoU to strengthen defense ties, Aug 11, 2023, https://www.hindustantimes.com/cities/mumbai-news/india-and-italy-to-strengthen-military-ties-with-bilateral-defense-pact-italian-navy-warship-on-port-visit-to-mumbai-101691695416446.html
[xvi] Italian Navy Ship ,Morosini, di Revel-class Offshore Patrol Vessel visited Mumbai, https://indiannavy.nic.in/content/italian-navy-ship-morosini-di-revel-class-offshore-patrol-vessel-visited-mumbai#:~:text=Italy%20and%20India%20are%20endeavouring,concerns%20in%20the%20maritime%20domain.
[xviii] IFC-IOR, Official Website, https://www.indiannavy.nic.in/ifc-ior/
[xix] Twitter, https://twitter.com/IFC_IOR/status/1704758247843065873
[xx] The Italian Contribution To The EU Strategy For The Indo-Pacific, January 20, 2022, chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/https://www.esteri.it/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/THE_ITALIAN_CONTRIBUTION_TO_THE_EU_STRATEGY_FOR_THE_INDO_PACIFIC.pdf