External Affairs Minister (EAM) of India Dr. S. Jaishankar paid an official visit to two European countries - Slovakia and Czech Republic in the first week of June 2022. He participated in the GLOBSEC 2022 Forum held in Bratislava on 3 June 2022 and delivered an address titled ‘Taking Friendship to the Next Level: Allies in the Indo-Pacific Region’. The excellent expose of India’s position on issues of regional and global importance amid conflict in Ukraine, has attracted interest and comments from different parts of the world. It also went viral on social media. This paper aims to contextualise impressions from China - our largest neighbour with whom currently we share a ‘difficult relationship’.
Chinese media (Mandarin as well as English) highlighted remarks of the EAM in general and his specific comments on the role of Europe and China-related subjects in particular. It emphasised that EAM’s remarks “angered Europe”[i] and “reflect India's objections to European centralism” and quoted EAM’s response to a question that “Europe must get rid of the mindset that Europe's problems are the world's problems, but the world's problems are not Europe’s problems”.[ii] This response of the EAM has been widely quoted across the globe. It was referred that these comments came amid continued efforts by the European countries to persuade or pressurise India to take a tougher position against Russia on the ongoing conflict with Ukraine.
An expert, Mr. Lan Jianxue from China Institute of International Studies, Beijing notes that “the remarks emphasised India's strategic autonomy, underscoring that New Delhi is a lackey of no one but seeks to be an independent major power”. Further, he argues that in the backdrop of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict, “India's international status has been significantly enhanced” and EAM’s remarks “also reflect the expansion of India's great power ambitions”.[iii] There is a need to understand such comments from China in proper context.
China’s relationship with Europe has deteriorated in recent times. Some experts have acknowledged that “China has made serious mistakes in crafting its Europe policy, resulting in the current rift”.[iv] Others believe that EU’s strategic positioning of China is undergoing a fundamental shift from a ‘partner’ to a ‘systemic rival’.[v] The EU and China held their 23rd bilateral Summit in virtual format on April 1, 2022. The Summit could not produce a joint statement or even a list of agreed deliverables, due to differences of opinions on matters of interest and concerns. EU Foreign Affairs High Representative Josep Borrell referred to the Summit as a “dialogue of the deaf”. A clear divergence in approach between the two sides was evident at the Summit. The EU leaders primarily highlighted the Russia- Ukraine conflict and stressed need to “work together on stopping Russia's war in Ukraine as soon as possible”.[vi] While Chinese President Xi called on the EU “to form its own perception of China, adopt an independent China policy” (from the US) and work with China to promote global growth and development.[vii]
A section of Chinese media exhibited aggressive postures just before the commencement of the Summit. It noted “Chinese analysts warned that China-EU relations cannot be kidnapped by the Ukraine crisis, and Europe should no longer be abducted by the US in foreign policy…”.[viii]
On May 20, 2021, the European Parliament halted ratification of the China-EU Comprehensive Agreement on Investment till fulfilment of some conditions including lifting of sanctions on EU politicians by China. The resolution to freeze ratification received overwhelming support with 599 votes in favour, 30 votes against and 58 abstentions.[ix] This has further added to the problems of China-Europe relationship and has received critical remarks from China.
In this background, Chinese experts and media welcomed the EAM’s remarks on Europe. However, India was apparently critical of Europe for different reasons altogether. The drivers and nature of relationship with Europe are different for India and China. India and the EU have a common interest in ‘each other's security, prosperity and sustainable development’. India’s relations with Europe are not facing any kind of downward trajectory. This is not the case as far as China relationship with Europe is concerned. China’s assertive foreign policy behaviour and ambition to be a dominant power in Asia and the world has added to the strained relationship.
The EAM’s remarks that India’s relationship with China is difficult and “we are fully capable of managing it” and that India-China relations have nothing to do with Russia-Ukraine conflict was also emphasised by the Chinese media.[x] It was noted that “India has returned to the traditional path - that is, China-India ties should be addressed through bilateral efforts without interference by a third party”.[xi] This is not a right assessment of India’s approach to bilateral relations with China. India has not ‘returned’ to bilateral efforts, but it has invested in bilateral mechanism previously as well as in current circumstances to resolve the ongoing problems. The frictions and tensions that arise from China’s military deployments violating bilateral boundary agreements since April 2020 have started a difficult phase of bilateral relationship between the two neighbours. Experts also believe that the Ladakh standoff has necessitated a fundamental reset of the India-China relations for a new strategic framework to rebuild the bilateral ties.
The Chinese media also referred to India-Russia relations and noted that it “has become less solid, and India has gradually turned to the US and Europe in a bid to contain China”.[xii] This assessment is again not appropriate. Bilateral ties with Russia are a key pillar of India's foreign policy. India sees Russia as a longstanding and time-tested friend that has played a significant role in its economic development and security.[xiii] Further, the main objective of India’s foreign policy like that of any other country is to secure its national interests. Independence of decision making and strategic autonomy are significant features of India’s foreign policy.[xiv] This has also been appreciated by some experts from China in recent times. India supports multipolarity in Asia and the world and believes in partnerships and shuns military alliances as well as containment strategies. India’s strengthening partnerships with US and Europe should be understood in this context.
In sum, the visit of Dr. S. Jaishankar to Europe and his observations especially regarding Europe and bilateral relations with China as well as Russia need to be understood in its proper context. The comments from China have come at a time when China–Europe relationship has become increasingly unstable. China’s actions at the border have created problems for bilateral relationship with India. Further, the Soviet Union and its successor Russian Federation are truly described as India’s reliable, and tested friend. Observations that undermine India-Russia relations are misplaced.
*Dr. Sanjeev Kumar, Senior Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
[i]“印度外长苏杰生怒怼欧洲：印中关系与俄乌冲突无” (Indian Foreign Minister Jaishankar angered Europe: India-China relations have nothing to do with Russia-Ukraine conflict) Beijing, 4 June 2022 available at https://world.huanqiu.com/article/48HqQxopbdkaccessed on 6 June 2022
[ii] Lan Jianxue, “Jaishankar’s remarks reflect India's objections to European centralism global times” Beijing, 5 June 2022, available at https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202206/1267313.shtml accessed on 6 June 2022
[iv] Xue Qing, “How China Is Losing Europe”: 25 May 2021, available at https://thediplomat.com/2021/05/how-china-is-losing-europe/accessed on 6 June 2022
[v]Yuan Li & Zhigao He, “The Remaking of China–Europe Relations in the New Era of US–China Antagonism”, Journal of Chinese Political Science , 2022, available at https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11366-022-09792-5 accessed on 17 June 2022
[vi]“EU-China Summit: Restoring peace and stability in Ukraine is a shared responsibility” 1 April 2022, available at https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/IP_22_2214 accessed on 6 June 2022.
[vii] “Xi Jinping: China and the EU Should Add Stabilizing Factors to a Turbulent World” Beijing, 1 April 2022 available at https://www.mfa.gov.cn/mfa_eng/zxxx_662805/202204/t20220401_10663226.htmlaccessed on 6 June 2022.
[viii]Zhang Hui and Liu Xin, “Xi calls on EU to form independent China policy, encourages bloc to take primary role for Ukraine resolution”, Beijing, 2 April 2022 https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202204/1257426.shtml accessed on 6 June 2022.
[ix]“EU parliament freezes China deal ratification until Beijing lifts sanctions”, 20 May 2022 available at https://www.reuters.com/world/china/eu-parliament-freezes-china-deal-ratification-until-beijing-lifts-sanctions-2021-05-20/ accessed on June 12, 2022.
[x]“印度外长苏杰生怒怼欧洲：印中关系与俄乌冲突无” (Indian Foreign Minister Jaishankar angered Europe: India-China relations have nothing to do with Russia-Ukraine conflict) Beijing, 4 June 2022 available at https://world.huanqiu.com/article/48HqQxopbdkaccessed on 6 June 2022
[xi] Lan Jianxue “Jaishankar’s remarks reflect India's objections to European centralism global times” Beijing, 5 June 2022, available at https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202206/1267313.shtml accessed on 6 June 2022
[xiii] “India-Russia Relations”, New Delhi, available at https://mea.gov.in/Portal/ForeignRelation/Russia_-DEC_2012.pdf, accessed on 15 June 2022
[xiv] Achal Kumar Malhotra, “India's Foreign Policy: An overview core objectives, Fundamental principles and current priorities” New Delhi, https://www.mea.gov.in/distinguished-lectures-detail.htm?863, accessed on 15 June 2022