As India and the European Commission formally resumed their Free Trade Agreement (FTA) negotiations this year, we witnessed a mushrooming of commentaries on the significance of the development. The torturous and inconclusive talks to reach such a deal had been abandoned years ago. They’ve been resurrected now, but what changed?
One line of argument is that the EU is seeking to balance China. While some of the European countries are increasingly critical of China at the political level, and growing more concerned about Chinese entities at the security level, the EU and its economic powerhouses remain intertwined with the Chinese economy. Thus, it is claimed by a part of the commentariat, enhancing economic relations with India would allow the EU to find a counterweight, to be overall less dependent on China for trade and investment. For instance, in vain pursuit of causation, some were quick to point out that in May, the announcement of the return to FTA negotiations with India was soon followed by a declaration that the EU was freezing the ratification of the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment with China.
This, however, is a fallacious argument. There is currently no way for India to take China’s place in the EU’s web of economic relations, in terms of the scale of both trade and investment. As for the latter, in 2019, the value of the EU’s FDI in China was 2.6 larger than its FDI in India (198.7 billion euro to 75.8 billion euro, respectively). Chinese FDI inflows into the EU were also overall larger than Indian FDI over the past years. While a 2020 Rhodium Group-MERICS report showed that Chinese FDI in Europe sharply declined in the 2017-2019 period, that does not necessarily mean Indian companies are comparable rivals when it comes to their capacity to invest in the EU. Moreover, what New Delhi and the EU are back to negotiating is a trade agreement (most probably focused on reducing tariffs on trade in goods), and not a deal to liberalize bilateral investment, although the EU is signaling its readiness to open talks on this front as well.
Speaking of trade: In 2020, the EU’s goods trade with China was worth nearly nine times its trade with India. As the EU Commission admits itself, India was “accounting for 1.8% of EU total trade in goods in 2020, well behind China,” the latter accounting for 16.1 percent of the EU’s trade. In 2019, the total EU-China goods trade was worth 7.2 times more than the total EU-India goods trade (561 billion euro to 77.8 billion euro); in 2018, it was 6.8 times larger (530.6 billion euro to 78 billion euro); in 2017, it was seven times larger (511.6 billion euro to 73 billion euro), and so on.
Even if we fast-forward to the EU-India FTA, very optimistically assuming it is signed within a few years, China will long remain both a much richer consumer market than India, as well as a massively larger source of exports. It may be argued that the EU’s trade with India is much more healthy, balanced as it is between imports and exports, when compared to its trade with China, which is radically tilted toward a deficit. But this is hardly something that the votaries of the counterweight theory can pick up as a point in this discussion, as in some cases India simply does not produce the goods which China exports to the EU (or produces/exports them on a far smaller scale). Moreover, as a recent MERICS study shows,”‘the EU was strategically dependent on China for 659 of the 5,600 product categories,” such as certain APIs, metals, or electronic goods – meaning that it was importing them nearly only from China and that China had an overwhelming global market share of the same goods.
Explaining anything by adding “China” or “China-U.S.” to a text has become a sign of intellectual laziness on the part of some commentators. Like pointing to a shadow lurking behind any object, many commentators are now prone to see Chinese actions and the China-U.S. rivalry as explanations to key events across the world. To be sure, the rise of China and its growing tensions with the United States are of great global significance, but there is life outside Washington and Beijing (actually, most of life thrives outside them). Not every phenomenon can be reduced to the rivalry of those two powers.
The same applies to the return of EU-India FTA negotiations. They have a dynamic and reasons of their own. While significant in their own way and in their own league, they certainly cannot lead to India becoming China’s counterweight in European Union’s economic relations.