NEW DELHI: India’s list of 28 strategic partners ranging from the US and France at one end to Uzbekistan and Mongolia at the other, is all set to grow: on Friday Greece will join that list with Prime Minister Modi doing the honours in Athens with his counterpart Kyriakos Mitsotakis. Why Greece? The last time any Indian prime minister visited was 40 years ago when Indira Gandhi was there.
Senior officials said the focus would be on defence and security, infrastructure cooperation, shipbuilding, and a migration and mobility agreement.
At a special media briefing, Secretary (West) Sanjay Varma pointed to Greece’s pivotal location in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Hellenic Navy’s position as the third-best in the EU. India recently held joint naval exercises with Greece and a multinational air force exercise. Modi, he said, wanted to “increase the pace of exchanges at the military level, training personnel, invite Greek capacity into the Make in India programme, especially in our defence industry.”
The outreach flows from India’s plan to make its presence felt in the Eastern Mediterranean while also subtly signalling the emerging Turkey-Pakistan-Azerbaijan bloc. During the recent Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict, Turkey supplied drones to Baku while Pakistan has supported its claims to the enclave of Nagorno Karabakh. India’s response has been to cultivate ties with Cyprus, Greece and Armenia.
“Greece continues to support India’s position on Kashmir and Pakistan-sponsored terrorism while we provide support to its stance to Cyprus.” says Shamma Jain, former ambassador to Greece. Asked about Turkey’s possible reaction, she cautions that India’s actions and policies should not be seen as targeted against any third country.
The support for Greece’s stance not only undermines the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) – a de-facto state in Northern Cyprus recognised by no one but Turkey – but will also step up India’s bid to secure gas in the Eastern Mediterranean. ONGC and others have expressed interest in mining for Greek hydrocarbons in the Ionian Sea and the southern Crete region. India’s good relations with the major countries in the Eastern Mediterranean – Egypt, Israel, Greece and Cyprus – may facilitate tapping into the huge gas reserves of the region. According to estimates, the region is home to as much as 112 trillion cubic feet of gas and 1.7 billion barrels of oil and these countries are particularly looking at India, the world’s third-largest energy consumer.
Ambassador Jain believes that such shared interests can lead to win-win opportunities for both India and Greece which she believes is already happening. “Greece has recovered from the financial crisis and has now a steady growth rate of 2.2%. The building of an international airport in Crete by GMR should lead to more joint projects.”
The other major source of excitement is the Arab-Mediterranean corridor. First proposed in 2021, the corridor once realised will link Indian goods to Europe via the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel and Greece. Indian goods will be shipped to the UAE and from there by rail through these countries to Haifa port in Israel, and from there by ship to Piraeus in Greece. According to a study by Michael Tanchum for the National University of Singapore, the port could not only serve as an alternative to the Chabahar-based INSTC but could ensure Indian goods “arrive on the European mainland in as little as 10 days, 40 per cent faster than via the Suez Canal maritime route.” The study however adds that the onus is on New Delhi’s “ability to develop manufacturing value chains in the India-to-Europe Arab-Med Corridor.”
But there are caveats. A senior diplomat said India’s lack of delivery on the Chabahar port has not inspired confidence in its ability to take and deliver on future projects. There is also China to contend with. “China has been working in Greece since 2008 and the Piraeus Port is controlled by COSCO, the Chinese state-owned shipping company. The port is seen as key for China’s BRI initiative as it is strategically positioned on the Suez Canal for shipping traffic through the Mediterranean and Black Sea,” he says. India will have to work this into its calculations as it gets set to take its relationship with Greece to the next level.