The first India-Nordic-Baltic Conclave on November 5 is illustrative of the keenness with which India has been seeking greater partnership with strategic Nordic and Baltic nations in the Atlantic as it pursues policies for “greener, smarter and more digital” growth. Both regions have their own merits for India’s geoeconomic and geostrategic aims in northern Europe and offer India the opportunity to establish alternate global supply chains, which have been too dependent on China and have been hit amid the COVID-19 pandemic. China has prioritized Eurasia through several projects as part of its Belt and Road Initiative. India seeks to establish alternative global supply chains in the region alongside key infrastructure projects that will link India with Eurasia as the country pursues a sustained free and rule-based global order. One such coveted cooperation project is between the International North-South Transport Corridor and Trans-European Transport Network’s Rail Baltica, which will allow a shorter multi-modal trade route connecting India with Central Asia, Europe, and Russia, instead of the conventional way through the Suez Canal.
Despite being one of the worst-hit nations by the COVID-19 pandemic, India has not shied away from actively engaging virtually with “like-minded” nations and pursuing “(green) strategic partnerships.” Compared with India’s traditional policy of focusing on major European powers, New Delhi’s strategy of engaging with smaller nations in Europe is a fresh addition to India’s multilateral approach of engaging countries in small groupings under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. April 2018 saw the first India-Nordic summit titled “Shared Values, Mutual Prosperity”’ with Modi meeting his counterparts from Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and Finland. It was hailed as a good geoeconomic move in India that saw the dormant engagement becoming active after a gap of three decades – the last Indian leader to have visited Stockholm was Rajiv Gandhi in 1988. The Nordic nations have become an attractive destination for the Indian information technology (IT) sector that is seeking partners in the estimated $25 billion Nordic IT and business process outsourcing service market, including future technologies, digital infrastructure, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, and 5G. The second India-Nordic Summit is planned in Denmark.
India’s relations with the Baltic region have been eclipsed by differing foreign policy priorities on both sides despite the establishment of diplomatic relations in the 1990s. However, recent geopolitical events and trends such as a rising Chinese presence in Europe, the Russia-Ukraine conflict, deepening Russia-China ties, and U.S. President Trump’s policies of America First have pushed various European powers toward the Indo-Pacific as they seek diversification of their relationships, especially in Asia. Visits of the leaders of Lithuania and Latvia to New Delhi in 2016 and 2017 respectively, followed by Estonia’s IT minister’s 2018 visit to India, strengthened India’s diplomatic interests in the region. The Indian IT minister’s maiden visit to Latvia and Estonia was in 2016. It was followed by India’s first high level visit to the nations on the Baltic Sea, with Vice President M. Venkaiah Naidu meeting leaders of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia in August 2019 to boost economic cooperation the fields of agriculture and food processing, pharmaceutical industry, technology transfer in renewable energy, cybersecurity, and cultural exchange.
Addressing the online India-Nordic-Baltic Conclave in November, Indian Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar noted India’s key role in innovation, sustainable development, and clean environmental technologies. The conclave included the foreign ministries of India as well as eight nations aiming at economic partnership: the Baltic nations of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, along with the five Nordic countries. The Nordic and Baltic regions offer their scientifically advanced and high-tech base for Indian technology firms. Boosting India-Latvia people-to-people engagement in information technology, Riga Technical University’s hosting of over 800 Indian engineering students is a step in the direction of closer partnership in bilateral knowledge transfer.
While India has been actively pursuing its relations with European partners seeking presence in the Indo-Pacific, such as France and Germany, its traditional engagement with the other countries in the Nordic and Baltic has been very limited. While re-igniting dormant relations in the regions is a key first step toward Indian presence in the region, it is certainly not sufficient. New Delhi could cement its relations by establishing embassies in the Baltic nations, which so far only have Indian diplomatic missions. The nations share common values of democracy and rule of law and have expressed solidarity with India’s aim of United Nations Security Council permanent membership. The pandemic has provided India an opportunity to forge relations in a new light that support its “New India” vision as a pragmatic and proactive player in the global order, as well as boost Modi’s “Make in India,” “Digital India” and “Self-Reliant India” initiatives.
Astha Chadha is a Ph.D. student at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, Japan. She holds a Master’s degree in International Relations from Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University and a Master’s in Economics from Jawaharlal Nehru University. She was previously working as a Mergers and Acquisitions Analyst in a top Japanese investment bank.