On the sidelines of the G20 summit in Bali, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, along with his other engagements that attracted a lot of attention, met his Italian counterpart, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, for a bilateral discussion. As India took the helm of the group of the world’s most advanced economies for 2023, the Modi-Meloni meeting sealed a continuity of engagement that the Italian and Indian sides have had since 2021, when the rotating presidency fell to Italy. At that time, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi had met Narendra Modi in Rome, precisely to consolidate a discourse of continuity between the two presidencies in light of the enormous global challenges in the post-Covid-19 era.
A further sense of continuity in the bilateral relationship that emerged was the exchange of views between the two delegations on topics other than those dealt with at the G20 summit, such as security and stability in the Indo-Pacific and the evolution of the global scenario. Exchanges of this kind between the two governments at the highest levels have become increasingly frequent in recent years.
Common vision, interest
Both India and Italy, in fact, share a strong common vision and interest in the preservation of the stability of the region, the international rule of law, and free, open and inclusive sea lines, between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. However, despite this clear interest, Rome has been reluctant to embrace the concept of the Indo-Pacific as part of its foreign policy. In 2018 it signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with China, driving many Italian foreign policy specialists to debate the dangerous influence of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) on Europe.
Since then, however, Italy has openly distanced itself from Beijing, shifting towards a stronger defence of its national interests. At the same time, while Germany decided to open its strategic infrastructures to Chinese investments, the previous Italian government headed by Mario Draghi repeatedly exercised its authority in vetoing Chinese companies from buying or investing in Italian defence industries. The level of Chinese attempts to infiltrate Italian production of sensitive defence systems, such as drones, pushed many in the Italian political establishment to question the real intent of China’s outreach to Rome.
There is a new government in Italy now. Brothers of Italy’s leader, Giorgia Meloni, the first female Prime Minister of Italy, has adopted from the very beginning a tough stance on China. During the election campaign, the Italian conservative leader had publicly declared her support for Taiwan’s democracy, despite admitting ideological differences with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen on domestic issues. Meloni’s words are quite unprecedented in recent Italian history, and even more among European Union’s leaders. In continuity with Mario Draghi’s vision on foreign policy, Meloni has declared her strong support for Ukraine, and a wish to embrace the cause of democracy and freedom around the world. It is still early to see to what extent the new Italian government will enlarge its view to include the Indo-Pacific in its foreign policy strategy. However, several important elements should convince it to proceed in this direction.
On the right track
In the last few years, the relationship between India and Italy has become closer, thanks to the personal intent of Prime Minister Modi in involving Italy in India’s new global foreign policy. On the side of the last G20 meeting in Rome, Prime Ministers Modi and Draghi had signed a series of bilateral agreements that further advance Italy-India ties, and for the first time in a bilateral meeting, they discussed sensitive security issues, including the security of the maritime sea-lines in the Indian Ocean. With a new conservative government in power in Rome, open to considering a pragmatic approach to international affairs, the two sides have a chance to set on the table a concrete bilateral agenda that can go beyond the existing, and already growing industrial and trade cooperation.
In fact, India and Italy can easily support each other in gaining access to areas where they have limited presence. Italy’s structured cooperation with North African countries, and steady support to the Libyan peace process, provide the country with a significant position in dealing with cross-West Asian terrorist threats, as well as development and trade projects in the region. At the same time, the successful Act East policy has already established India as a significant actor in the wider Indian Ocean, making it an essential partner in dealing with security issues that affect the waters of the Gulf of Aden, where Italy is present. India’s knowledge of the region and membership of the Quad makes it a serious security provider, and its policies such as the SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) can provide an already established platform for Italian contribution to the security of the region, and for Italian investments in development projects.
In July 2021 the Ministry of External Affairs and the Italian Embassy in Delhi launched the idea of an India-Italy-Japan trilateral to develop closer cooperation in the fields of technology, trade, security and international institutions. Though it has not yet become fully operational, the agreements signed by Modi and Draghi and the successful coordination of the two governments during the G20 Rome summit indicate the need to frame this emerging partnership in order to institutionalise channels of consultation and assistance between Delhi and Rome, both on the regional and on the global stage. The new Italian government, which commands a stable majority in Parliament, and promises to pursue a pragmatic and national interests-oriented foreign policy, along with the Indian government should relaunch the discussion of this trilateral partnership, opening a new chapter in the India-Italy relations.
Harsh V Pant is Vice President for Studies and Foreign Policy at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and Professor at King’s College London.
Mauro Bonavita is a PhD candidate at King’s College London. He tweets @BonavitaMauro. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)