By Anil Wadhwa,
Despite the global pandemic, the engagements on the international diplomatic agenda continue unabated. External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar has just concluded a successful visit to Greece, the first in 18 years, where the two countries expressed convergence on the geo political and geo economic realities, including the Indo Pacific. The significance lies in the fact that Greece has been one of the earliest beneficiaries of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative with the strategic Piraeus port coming under the control of Chinese shipping company COSCO in 2016. As India tries to engage all countries in Europe, the prospects for a larger trade, investment and geographical indicators package become brighter. The action now shifts to the G 20 host country Italy.
The spotlight is on the G20 foreign Ministers meeting and the Foreign and Development Ministers Joint Ministerial Session in the historical town of Matera on 29 June as well as the G-20 Ministerial event on humanitarian assistance on June 30, 2021 in the strategic port of Brindisi which serves as a hub for the distribution of much needed food aid to the countries in distress through the Rome based international organizations like the World Food Programme. As is the norm, a few bilateral meetings are also on the cards, first and foremost with host country Italy, and other important interlocutors like the UK, Mexico, and Singapore.
Italy is a member of prominent regional and global groupings including EU, G 7, G 20, NATO and OECD. Italy is an important player for the revival and intensification of India EU partnership in the areas of trade, investment, connectivity, digital technologies and climate as well as the forthcoming negotiations for India EU trade and investment agreements. Last year’s virtual Summit between former Italian PM Conte and PM Modi marked a milestone when both countries signed a Joint Declaration and Plan of Action to prioritize areas of cooperation and strategic goals for the period 2020-2025. Currently, India and Italy are important partners in key sectors such as finance, railway development, fashion industry and automobile manufacturing. Before the onset of Covid in 2019, trade volume between the two countries reached Euro 9.52 billion. Italy is still India’s fifth largest trading partner in the EU. Italian inflows of investments into India during April to December 2020 were $3.02 billion. Around 600 Italian companies are active in the Indian market. The current focus is on advanced manufacturing, machine tools and metallurgy, the automotive industry, energy transition, infrastructure, with focus on railways, food processing and Information technology.
As India grapples with the challenges of a growing population, urbanization and climate change, Italy can be an ideal partner for India in the circular economy, water and waste to energy solutions, pollution mitigating technologies, automation, and the entire food processing chain, including food preservation, processing and logistics. There is ongoing cooperation in renewable energy, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, information technology, startups and innovation, e-commerce, food processing and related technologies, and luxury goods. Small and Medium enterprise collaboration holds great promise. The India – Trento programme for advanced research, and centers for excellence in mutual strengths are the hallmarks of the Indo – Italian bilateral science and technology programme. Italy’s importance for India in the field of shipbuilding, underwater systems, radars, electronics and high-altitude equipment continues to be recognized. The co-development and co-production agreement for military systems and the MOUs signed between Fincanteri and Cochin shipyard on design, shipbuilding, manufacturing and repairs are important for India’s Atmanirbhar Bharat programme. The cooperation in counterterrorism has proceeded well, and education is emerging as a strong area of cooperation. The cultural connect between the two countries, both ancient civilizations, has always been strong. Archeology and preservation of monuments will remain a focus between the two countries. There is a 162,000 strong Indian diaspora in Italy. In 2020, India gifted a raft of support and relief material to Italy in the light of the Covid pandemic. Amidst the ongoing second wave of the pandemic, Italy has lent much needed strong support to India including an oxygen generation plant which was set up at the ITBP hospital in Greater Noida near Delhi. The issue of the marines which dogged relations between the two countries from 2012- 2016 and the jurisdiction issue on their trial is now firmly behind both countries following the award of the Permanent Court of Arbitration, the full and final deposit of compensation by Italy with the Indian authorities and the settlement of the issue of trial of the marines in Italy.
The duration of the bilateral meeting with Italy will be short, and it can be expected that besides a review of the Plan of Action, the pending migration – mobility agreement between the two countries as well as innovation and energy specific cooperation focusing on the energy transition underway in India and the role that Italy can play will be the focus of attention. In the light of the EU’s interest in the Indo Pacific, Italy and India can work together in the region especially on resilient supply chains and infrastructure projects in third countries. An interesting virtual trilateral meeting between Japan India and Italy on the Indo Pacific and possible areas of trilateral cooperation has already been organized by Italy a couple of weeks ago. There is a convergence between India and Italy to support all connectivity issues which are based on internationally recognized norms and standards, good governance, rule of law, inclusiveness, transparency and level playing field, as reflected in the Indo Italian joint statement of 6 November 2020.
India works closely with a number of countries in the Indian Ocean who are part of IORA under the rubric of its policy of SAGAR (security and growth for all in the region) enunciated by PM Modi in 2015. Italy is a strong partner for the MENA countries in innovation, trade and regional integration. India and Italy can join hands in cooperative projects in the Indian ocean and MENA regions in the fields of blue economy, coastal and cruise tourism, fisheries, marine resources, disaster risk reduction, academic and scientific cooperation, tourism promotion and cultural exchanges as well as maritime security.
The Quad Summit on 12 March had decided on rolling out a vaccine plan for the Indo Pacific, under which India would manufacture US vaccines with US and Japanese funds and Australia would roll out the distribution in the Indo pacific. Given the urgency arising due to the mutants and multiple waves of the pandemic, there is speculation that the foreign ministers of the Quad could meet on the sidelines of the G 20 meeting to bring forward the time table for this rollout plan to the end of 2021, from the original time frame of end 2022. Japanese JICA loans and funds from the Development Finance Corporation of the USA will be needed by Biological E based in Hyderabad, India, to ramp up enhanced production of the Johnson and Johnson Covid 19 vaccine ahead of the schedule planned earlier.
India could take the opportunity of the presence of foreign Ministers from South Africa and Brazil to organize an IBSA foreign ministers meeting on the sidelines for the G-20 ministerial. Traditionally, IBSA countries focus on issues of security, terrorism, and climate change, the multilateral trading system, disarmament, and South South cooperation. The efforts being made by India and South Africa for an Intellectual Property waiver under the TRIPS agreement on health products and technologies including diagnostics, therapeutics, vaccines, medical devices , protective equipment, their materials or components, and their methods and means of manufacture for the Covid 19 pandemic in the WTO along with the role that the IBSA fund for alleviation of poverty and hunger can play in the current situation facing the world deserve focused attention of this grouping.
(The author is a former Secretary (East) in the Ministry of External Affairs and served as the Indian Ambassador to Italy, Poland, Oman and Thailand. He is currently a Distinguished Fellow with the Vivekananda International Foundation, in New Delhi. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the Financial Express Online.)