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Bilateral relations between Germany and India are based on a sound foundation of mutual respect, understanding, and support. The domains of cooperation between the two countries range from growing economic exchange to landmark cultural events. As I had written earlier, what makes this relationship unique is that both India and Germany contribute their particular and unique strengths to this partnership. Having discussed trade and energy cooperation, I believe defense & strategic cooperation, as well as cultural diplomacy, deserve equal attention as areas of engagement between the two nations.

Strategic Partnership

For India, a strategic partnership with Germany makes sense because Germany is influential, and India can leverage this to reassert itself at international fora. Further, in a joint statement released during the recent India-Germany Inter-Governmental Consultations (IGC), Germany reiterated support for India’s membership in various export control regimes, like the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the Missile Technology Control Regime, Australia Group, and the Wassenaar Arrangement. Berlin, along with New Delhi, has been a strong advocate for UN reform, and Germany supports India’s bid for a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). While India already enjoys support from all permanent members of the UNSC barring China, being backed by Germany will likely provide stronger support from the European Union bloc. For Germany, India’s seat at the UNSC will mean greater influence at the table through a strategic partner. These complimentary interests and others such as the impact of climate change, tackling terrorism, and establishment of a stable and sustainable global economic order, have prompted the countries to support each other’s claim for a permanent seat at the UNSC.

During Merkel’s recent visit to India, Modi declared that both sides see eye-to-eye on matters of counter-terrorism and radicalism, saying: “These are important security dimensions of our expanding relationship.” Talking about other matters of shared interest, he added: “We have a common perspective on this region; the turbulence in West Asia; Europe’s challenges; and, shaping a peaceful and stable Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean Region.” Germany was actively involved in restoring peace, reinforcing security, and facilitating development in Afghanistan, and for this, Modi extended his gratitude to his counterpart.

The two leaders also used IGC as a forum to underscore the importance of freedom of navigation in international waters and other maritime rights, as per international law, in what seemed to be a veiled reference to China’s aggression in the South China Sea. While Germany has largely been silent on the issue, it is naïve to assume that they have turned a deaf ear to the matter. Chinese military ambition has been growing unchecked, and neighbors are tense. Perhaps Germany also realizes that India is the only counterweight to China in the South Asian region. India’s location, strategic ties with other nations in South Asia, and a stable economy, give it the requisite strength to challenge Chinese ambitions, if need be.

Defense Cooperation

Even before Merkel’s arrival, there were clear indications that a proposed partnership in defense was on the table. Speculation was that there would be discussion on Germany supplying six submarines to India. Modi’s declaration, that cooperation in areas such as “defense manufacturing, trade in advanced technology, intelligence” will grow, cast away the remaining shred of doubt, if any. The submarine deal will have two-pronged advantages: first, the bidding for the submarines, estimated at around $7.71 billion (approx. Rs. 50,000 crore), will open up a new market for Germany’s defense manufacturing industry and second, acquiring these submarines will be instrumental in enhancing India’s blue water capabilities. Call it a win-win!

Cultural Diplomacy

Another important takeaway of Chancellor Merkel’s visit to India was the MoU signed between the two countries, whereby German will be taught as an additional foreign language in Kendriya Vidyalayas (KV) schools across the country. On its part, Germany has promised to promote modern Indian languages in German curricula. What makes this a noteworthy event is the fact that the decision has come despite opposition from India’s education minister Smriti Irani. She maintains that teaching German will be against the spirit of the three-language formula, and in violation of the national education policy. Thus, this move only serves to highlight Modi’s emphasis on cultural diplomacy vis-a-vis Germany. Both Modi and Merkel seem to understand that while economics and trade are determining factors in any thriving bilateral relationship, the key to developing a deeper relationship is to bridge cultures. And what better way to start than promoting languages. As Frantz Fanon, the Afro-Caribbean revolutionary, famously said: “To speak a language is to take on a world, a culture.”

Conclusion

Relations between India and Germany have deepened in nearly all fields. What had once been a “policy of benign neglect” has turned into a vital and vibrant partnership. The frequent exchanges at the ministerial and heads of government level clearly signal India’s growing importance for Germany and vice versa. To quote C. Raja Mohan, “in their second summit in six months, Modi and Merkel may have decisively nudged India and Germany towards a goal that was first articulated 100 years ago.” That Modi and Merkel found mutual agreement on matters beyond the traditional domain of trade reflects a sense of determined pragmatism on both their parts. Exploring the possibility of defense cooperation and strategic partnership comes at a welcome hour when India could use foreign help in strengthening its defense capabilities, and Germany could greatly benefit from the potential of a newfound market, and strategic ally in the world’s largest democracy. Indeed, it is time that much heralded common values become more than just words, and get translated into concrete policies on the ground.

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Image: Roberto Schmidt-AFP, Getty

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