India-Italy Ties and the Indo-Pacific

Harsh V Pant & Mauro Bonavita

On March 2, Italian Prime Minister (PM) Giorgia Meloni inaugurated the Raisina Dialogue 2023, co-organized by the ministry of external affairs and the Observer Research Foundation. Earlier in the day, during her first official visit to Delhi, she held a bilateral meeting with PM Narendra Modi, and signed a series of bilateral agreements, elevating India-Italy relations to a strategic partnership.

Four major messages in her speech underscore the direction of the new Italian policy: A clear balance between national interest and a joint-European approach; an inclusive and rules-based understanding of how the international order should work, especially in the Indo-Pacific; support for a renewed and stronger role for Europe in the regional dynamics; and a broader canvass of India-Italy relations based on the common strands of their identities, and the new challenges and opportunities of today’s world.

At the heart of Italy’s Indo-Pacific vision lies the understanding of this region as the neighborhood of its strategic Mediterranean Sea. This geopolitical connection deeply links the national interest of Italy in the Mediterranean with the stability and security of the broader Indo-Pacific. Just as then the convergence between the Indian and Pacific Oceans represented for Japan the new dimension of its global vision for the 21st century, Rome today views the links between the Mediterranean world and the Indo-Pacific as the centerpiece of the Italian vision for a new century of an interconnected, but turbulent, world.

Despite never referring to China directly, several times in her speech, the Italian PM described her country’s approach to the international system in terms that embrace the Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision through the preservation of the rule of law, which Italy and India have been consistently supporting. The Italian government arrived at Raisina after launching an ambitious initiative for strengthening north and western African economies – the Mattei Plan. Launched by Meloni recently, the core idea of this plan is to support nation-States at the southern border of the Mediterranean to positively prevent the spread of radical ideologies and terrorism and decrease illegal migration caused by extreme poverty.

When she underlined, “A collaboration aimed at providing tangible benefits for all. Without predatory ambitions. Without coercion, economic or otherwise,” she was marking a clear distinction from China’s debt-trap operations through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in South-East and South Asia, and Africa. She was upfront in acknowledging that in the past, Europe failed to take on the problems of others, focusing exclusively on its own. While not directly mentioning the Chinese threats in Taiwan, or the Chinese provocations on the border with India or in the South China Sea, Meloni pointed to the recent European Union strategy for the Indo-Pacific as a clear signal of Europe’s return to dealing with the region, including its security priorities.

During the meeting with PM Modi, the two leaders signed a series of bilateral agreements, agreeing to elevate the relations to a strategic partnership. This comes just weeks after a similar agreement was signed with Japan, and it is understood that it will soon be followed by a defense agreement that will pave the way for deeper military cooperation and joint training.

Describing Italy-India relations, the Italian PM drew a parallel in the identities of the two nations – both natural centers of the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean, and hubs of ancient cultures. And now, the intent is to make this relationship respond to the challenges of the 21st century with the launch of the India-Italy Start Up Bridge and an MoU between Rabindra Bharti University, Kolkata, and the Italian Consulate General in Kolkata, underlining the aspiration to further diversify the mutually beneficial relationship from economy and technological development to culture and knowledge production.

In light of all this, an initial assessment of Meloni’s visit seems to indicate a radical and positive change for the region in Italy’s Indo-Pacific policy. As often hoped for by New Delhi, a further like-minded partner is appearing in the region, accepting the variable geography of its minilateral initiatives and pushing to integrate into them. The next steps will be for bilateral diplomacy to be able to cultivate this openness and sustain the Italian presence in the Indian Ocean as a security provider through close cooperation between the two navies and potentially the inclusion of Italy in a minilateral formula that unleashes the potential that India and Italy can realize in the Indo-Pacific.

The article was first published on the Hindustan Times as Stronger India-Italy ties can transform the Indo-Pacific on March 4, 2023.

Read more on IMPRI: Women: The Real Architect of our Society.