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A New Chapter in India-Italy Relations?

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On March 2, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni inaugurated the 8th Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi, together with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This occasion was particularly significant from a diplomatic, as well as symbolic, point of view.

Meloni was the guest of honor of this year’s Raisina Dialogue, India’s flagship annual geopolitical conference co-hosted by the Ministry of External Affairs and Observer Research Foundation. Named after Raisina Hill, the seat of the Indian government, launched in 2016, this annual conference on geopolitics and geoeconomics features the participation of heads of state, ministers, journalists, academics, and researchers, and addresses issues facing the global community. Its growing profile among the global political fora organized around the world reflects the increasing relevance that India has on the global stage.

While the Italian prime minister was in India for the dialogue, Meloni and Modi announced the upgrade of their countries’ relationship to a strategic partnership. The decision follows a similar development in Italy’s relationship with Japan, announced just a few weeks prior, and sheds light on Italy’s growing interest and activism in the Indo-Pacific area.

In her speech, Meloni highlighted the interconnectedness of Europe and the Indo-Pacific region, stating that what happens in the Indo-Pacific has direct repercussions in Europe. Moreover, in the Italian vision of an “Enlarged Mediterranean,” Italy considers the Mediterranean “enlarged [to] here,” meaning the Indo-Pacific region, and envisages the existence of a “connection between the Med and the Indo-Pacific that we want to strengthen.”

This bilateral meeting occurred as Italy and India celebrate 75 years since the establishment of formal diplomatic relations and visibly mark the beginning of a new phase in their relationship. Ties have not always been smooth. Several problems burdened the relationship in the recent past, from the 2012 Enrica Lexie case to the AgustaWestland chopper deal controversy. In the former incident, Indian authorities arrested two Italian marines who were aboard the Italian-flagged commercial oil tanker MB Enrica Lexie, accusing them of the killing of two Kerala fishermen. The case sparked a conflict over legal jurisdiction and functional immunity, which ended only in 2020 with the verdict of the Permanent Court of Arbitration. The AgustaWestland VVIP helicopter scandal, meanwhile, saw the defense firm – owned by Italian company Leonardo – accused of bribery, resulting in India canceling the procurement deal and banning Leonardo from the Indian defense market in 2015.

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The relationship has slowly improved in recent years. In 2017, then-Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni went to India on the first official visit of an Italian prime minister since 2007, although some difficulties still persisted. However, the actual change in the relationship occurred with Mario Draghi’s government in Italy. After assuming office in January 2021, Draghi made pivoting toward India one of his government’s priorities.

During the G-20 heads of state meeting in Rome in October 2021, Draghi held bilateral meetings with four leaders, including Modi. The importance Modi placed on his visit to Italy, the first by an Indian prime minister in 12 years, was evident from the senior cabinet members who accompanied him: External Affairs Minister S. Jaishakar; National Security Advisor Ajit Doval; Finance Minister Nirmala Seetharaman; and Minister of Commerce and Industry, Textiles, and the Indian Sherpa for the G-20 Piyush Goyal; in addition to other senior diplomats. Modi also fully supported the Italian-led G-20 meeting on Afghanistan, one of the crucial historical theaters of Indian foreign policy projection.

Meloni’s government is thus leveraging the groundwork laid by its predecessor to deepen Italy’s partnership with India. This foreign policy continuity has been, so far, a crucial element in Meloni’s posture. However, in this specific case, this continuity is particularly noteworthy given the hostility expressed by Meloni’s party, Fratelli D’Italia (Brothers of Italy), toward New Delhi in the past, primarily because of the Enrica Lexie case. The party demand the expulsion of the Indian ambassador at the time.

Since becoming prime minister, Meloni has been able so far to isolate her approach from the ideological and cultural elements that are still part of the political baggage of her own party. This is also one of the elements that helps explain why she managed to guarantee continuity with the previous technocratic government.

As Italy’s interest in the Indo-Pacific region continues to grow, this partnership could have significant implications for global geopolitical dynamics and also for European and transatlantic interests.

In anticipation of the Raisina Dialogue, Matteo Perego Di Cremnago, Italy’s undersecretary for defense, visited Bengaluru for the Aero India 2023 show. There, he met with India’s Defense Minister Rajnath Singh to hold bilateral talks. Defense cooperation thus will be a crucial aspect of this upgraded strategic partnership.

In November 2021, India’s Defense Ministry lifted the decade-long ban on Italian defense company Leonardo following a meeting between Modi and Draghi. This decision paved the way for the return of Leonardo to the Indian market. The company thus could contribute to various Indian defense projects, including the provision of heavyweight torpedoes required to arm the Scorpene-class conventional submarines. The acquisition of 98 Black Shark heavyweight torpedoes was previously put on hold by the Indian Ministry of Defense due to Leonardo’s blacklisting.

Italy’s interest in India extends beyond geopolitical considerations linked to its mounting interest to be involved in the Indo-Pacific region. It also has a strong business rationale, as the Indian defense sector presents a wealth of opportunities, and it is a market relatively unexplored by Italian companies.

In 2023, India allocated 13 percent of its total budget for defense, marking a 13 percent increase from the previous fiscal year. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), India’s military spending ranked third highest in the world in 2022, at $76.6 billion, up 0.9 percent from 2020 and 33 percent from 2012.

Of the capital outlays in the military budget of 2021, 64 percent were earmarked for acquisitions of domestically produced arms, highlighting the importance of domestic manufacturing of weapons to the Indian government. This need is at the core of the 10-year defense modernization spending plan worth around $250 billion that India announced in 2022, which is centered around the upgrading of its aging fleet of fighter jets, submarines, battle tanks, and armored vehicles. For that, India needs to partner with other countries.

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This focus on domestic manufacturing presents an opportunity for Italian companies to become partners and provide support in parts of the supply chain where India is weak. For instance, Fincantieri previously worked with Cochin Shipyard to provide expertise for technology upgrades and capability enhancements needed for the construction of the Vikrant, India’s first domestically built aircraft carrier. In October 2020, Fincantieri signed another memorandum of understanding with Cochin Shipyard covering design, procurement, construction of new military vessels, ship repair, equipment, and training.

Deepening the India-Italy defense relationship may also have a transatlantic relevance. India’s defense sector remains heavily dependent on Russia, a legacy of the Cold War. While India does not necessarily want to change its relationship with Moscow, as suggested by its approach to the war in Ukraine, it is nevertheless willing to exploit the increasing interest shown by the United States to engage New Delhi. In its latest National Security Strategy, the Biden administration referred to India as “the world’s largest democracy” and a “Major Defense Partner,” highlighting the importance of working together to support a free and open Indo-Pacific. For the United States, India is essential to counter China’s influence in Asia.

Moreover, India has also expressed an interest in having closer relations with the EU, as New Delhi sees the focus of the European strategy as complementary to its vision of the Indo-Pacific. In the past, Indian actors stressed that Italy can “offer support to an India-centric EU Strategy for Collaboration in the Indo-Pacific.”

For India, the eventual defense decoupling from Russia cannot happen quickly, and it is unlikely that India will completely cut ties with Moscow. That being said, having European partners, such as Italy, become more involved in the Indian defense industry could serve as a tool at least to reduce India’s reliance on Russia over the long term. With the upgrade to a strategic partnership, and with this renewed activism in India, Italy can strengthen its projections in the Indo-Pacific and also be one of the crucial European actors that can bring India closer both to the European Union and the United States.

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