"A Signal to China"

EU set to revive free-trade talks with India. Meager western Covid-19 aid sparks criticism in India of Hindu-nationalist's westward orientation.

BERLIN/NEW DELHI (Own report) - Despite the murderous escalation of the Covid-19 pandemic in India, the EU continues to refuse a vaccine patent waiver, pushing instead for a free-trade agreement with that country. The EU-India summit on Saturday is expected to decide on reviving respective negotiations with the intention of making India a business alternative to China. The EU's demands traditionally include the agrarian sector's deregulation, which provoked the current mass protests of Indian farmers. German business representatives urge caution against too strong of a focus on business with India: Efforts to expand this business have failed already in the past due to India's excessive red tape and poor infrastructure. Government measures have also repeatedly disregarded the interests of foreign investors, according to the Federation of German Industries (BDI). In view of the meager Western aid for combating the pandemic, demands are becoming louder among India's elite for repudiating the governing Hindu nationalists' pro-US orientation and calling for a return to non-alignment.

In Search of Alternatives

At Saturday's summit with India, the EU is set to intensify its cooperation with that South Asian country. Brussels wants to "send a clear signal to China" that the EU is looking "for other strategic partners in Asia," Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is quoted saying.[1] The discussion will include possible ways of intensifying cooperation in the fields of foreign and military policy - at a time when India is involved with the Unites States to establish a new pact, the "Quadrilateral Security Dialogue" ("Quad") directed against the People's Republic of China. (german-foreign-policy.com reported.[2]) German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas announced the intention to launch a "connectivity partnership" with New Delhi that will "further connect India’s and Europe’s digital economies."[3] The Union, however, attaches particular importance to a relaunch of the free-trade talks with India, which had already began in 2007, but were suspended without results in 2013. With only 1.9 percent of the EU's foreign commodity trade, India lags well behind China, with 13.8 percent.[4]

Farmer Protests in India

The attempt to revive the free-trade talks come at the time of mass protests in India against new legislation that would comply with central EU demands. Last year, New Delhi passed laws to open markets for previously protected agricultural products. They include the abolishment of minimum prices for various agricultural goods.[5] This affects countless small farmers, whose very existence depends on minimum prices. They have every reason to fear that large companies will lower the prices of agrarian products in the future driving them into utter poverty. The farmers have been protesting against this for months - confronting the brutal repression by Indian authorities. The arrest of 22-year-old climate activist Disha Ravi, on February 13, on charges of "high treason" because of her support of the farmers' protest, caused an international stir. For Months, human rights organizations such as Amnesty International have been demanding an end to the brutal repression.[6] Observers note that Brussels has always demanded the deregulation of India's agricultural market in return for free trade, thus encouraging New Delhi's crackdown on the farmers.[7]

"Repeated Disillusionment"

From their side, German government advisors and business representatives are warning against seeking to groom India to become an alternative to the booming business with China. For one thing, New Delhi is making little progress in the development of its own industry, as the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) notes. So far it has been unsuccessful in "achieving that its manufacturing sector account for the targeted 25 percent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP), allowing India to become globally competitive." Instead, the share sank from 15.1 percent (2014) to 14.8 percent (2018).[8] German companies have always complained of excessive red tape, as well as a poor infrastructure, both being considered the reason behind German business with India hardly expanding, in spite of strong political support over the past two decades. Wolfgang Niedermark, a BDI Executive Board member, points out that the Indian government has repeatedly increased import tariffs, enacted new standards, or other measures that burden foreign investors. For example, "five years ago, India annulled the Bilateral Investment Protections Agreement it had signed with 50 countries," without having provided a substitute. "Hopes of India as a market of the future" warns Niedermark, have "repeatedly ended in disillusionment in the present."[9]

A Drop in the Bucket

While the EU is insisting on free trade, a second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic is devastating India at an unprecedented scale. Yesterday, Tuesday, 3,449 people died and there were 357,229 new infections officially registered. The true amount has proven to be much higher, as journalists have ascertained through discrepancies - in many places by a factor of ten - between registration data and research at the crematoriums. Hospitals are complaining of a lack of oxygen, the vaccination program is stalled, due also to the fact that the Biden administration has ordered a ban on exports of precursors for vaccine production, to the detriment of Indian vaccine manufacturers. Since last year, India has been campaigning to have the patents for Covid-19 vaccines lifted, at least temporarily, to boost global vaccine production to the maximum. It has failed in these efforts, not least of all, due to Berlin and the EU, who fear a loss of the profits of their pharmaceutical companies. (german-foreign-policy.com reported.[10]) In spite of the current skyrocketing death toll, the EU is not providing India with patents, but rather only with mobile oxygen production units, ventilators, and a limited amount of medicine, as an act of great generosity, for such an enormous country of 1.35 billion - merely a drop in a bucket.

Criticism of the Westward Orientation

Current power shifts in India could affect the country's willingness to ally with the West. Over the past few years, the orientation in favor of a pact with the United States has been largely promoted by the Hindu-nationalist government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Modi has now come under massive pressure due to his complete mishandling of the pandemic. Calls for him to resign are growing louder, and in the course of recently held elections in the important state of West Bengal, his party the Indian People's Party (BJP) did not achieve the predicted majority, in spite of its considerable efforts. With Modi's antidemocratic policies in mind, the election campaign was branded a "war for Indian democracy."[11] Due to the fact that during the pandemic, the USA has responded too late to calls for help and paralyzed the production of vaccines with its export ban, and since the EU has refused to suspend any vaccine patents, among India's elites voices are growing louder calling for halting the current rapprochement policy with the West, and for a return to the former non-alignment course. According to Aparna Pande, an expert at the Hudson Institute in Washington D.C. the objective is "strategic autonomy."[12]


[1] Silke Wettach: EU will mit Indien wieder über Abkommen zum Freihandel beraten. wiwo.de 03.05.2021.

[2] See also Manöver in Ostasien.

[3] Heiko Maas: Wir brauchen eine europäische Strategie für den Indo-Pazifik. handelsblatt.com 11.04.2021.

[4] See also Deutschland im Indo-Pazifik (III).

[5] Bharat Dogra: Bauern in Aufruhr - ihre Bewegung bringt Einheit und Hoffnung. welthungerhilfe.de 14.04.2021.

[6] India: Government must stop crushing farmers' protests and demonizing dissenters. amnesty.org 09.02.2021. See also China's Counterpart (II).

[7] Dominik Müller: Beginnt der Niedergang von Modis BJP? de.qantara.de 17.03.2021.

[8] Christian Wagner, Jana Lemke: Indien: Ein ambivalenter Partner für den Westen. Wachsende Gemeinsamkeiten, wachsende Differenzen. SWP-Aktuell 28. März 2021.

[9] Mathias Peer: Indien statt China? Europa strebt eine neue Partnerschaft in Asien an. handelsblatt.com 04.04.2021.

[10] See also Sauerstoffgeräte statt Impfstoffpatente.

[11] Soutik Biswas: West Bengal election: Modi loses a battle in the 'war for Indian democracy'. bbc.co.uk 03.05.2021.

[12] Covid-19: China stokes US-India tensions over Biden's slow coronavirus aid. timesofindia.indiatimes.com 26.04.2021.