The institutional mechanism of a strategic partnership will enable the world’s largest and oldest democracies to translate their many areas of convergence into sustained engagement.
Gone are the days of a potential Grexit. Greek seashores are now thronging with tourists and there are unprecedented queues at the entrance to the Acropolis. No longer the “black sheep of Europe”, Greece has bounced back from the throes of the 2008 financial crisis to finding its place amongst the eurozone’s fastest-growing economies. Despite high energy prices and inflation, the country grew at a rate of 5.9 percent last year after Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’s economic reforms set Greece on a new progressive course.
In this context, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Greece on 25 August marked the first visit by an Indian PM to the country in 40 years. The visit capitalised on the momentum generated by Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar’s trip to Greece in 2021, followed by Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias’s visit to India in March 2022, and the 13th bilateral Foreign Office Consultations in June this year.
Greek seashores are now thronging with tourists and there are unprecedented queues at the entrance to the Acropolis.
As ancient civilisations, the two countries share strong diplomatic ties. But as Jaishankar reiterated, the relationship is “comfortable, not ambitious”. PM Modi’s visit has upended this “comfortable” status quo by upgrading Indo-Greek ties to the level of a strategic partnership aiming to deepen cooperation in areas of trade, investments, security, defence, energy, migration, infrastructure, tourism, connectivity and agriculture.
The Indo-Pacific meets the Mediterranean
At the heart of these revitalised ties is a common vision of an open, inclusive and rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific region where the majority of global trade passes through, as well as concerns of stability in the Mediterranean region at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and Africa. India and Greece, both historic maritime nations, share a commitment to maritime stability “in accordance with the law of the sea, in particular the provisions of the UNCLOS, and with full respect for the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and freedom of navigation to the benefit of international peace, stability and security”, as emphasised in their joint statement.
The Mediterranean region, where China maintains a strong security and economic presence, is strategically significant for energy-hungry India given its 112 trillion cubic feet of gas and 1.7 billion barrels of oil reserves. Greece’s vital location in the Eastern Mediterranean, and its status as both an EU and NATO member, renders it a potential gateway for India into the EU, particularly for Indian companies seeking entry into Europe through the port of Piraeus—the region’s largest port and a key hub for Asia-Europe connectivity.
The Mediterranean region, where China maintains a strong security and economic presence, is strategically significant for energy-hungry India given its 112 trillion cubic feet of gas and 1.7 billion barrels of oil reserves.
Yet a huge caveat looms over this optimism—notwithstanding the EU’s goals to ‘de-risk’ strategic sectors from Chinese investment; Chinese state-owned shipping company COSCO with its 60-percent stake controls the Piraeus port, often referred to as the ‘Dragon’s Head’ of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Yet as the relaunched EU-India Free Trade Agreement negotiations continue in full swing, Greece’s advanced logistics infrastructure with its ports, strategic location and prominent shipping industry will contribute to deepening the continent’s trade ties with India.
The two countries also benefit from longstanding defence cooperation. Despite sanctions imposed by Western countries following India’s nuclear tests in May 1998, Greece signed a memorandum of understanding on Defence Cooperation with India the same year. Moreover, India and Greece have engaged in joint naval exercises in the Mediterranean Sea and also participated in the multinational air force exercise INIOCHOS-23 this year. In September, the Greek F-16 fighter jets are scheduled to participate in the Indian Tarang Shakti air exercise. Besides the maintenance of maritime security, powerful geopolitical imperatives underpin this enhanced security cooperation—the Turkish and Pakistan navies have also conducted joint military exercises in the Mediterranean Sea, and the F-16s are a key component of Pakistan’s defence capabilities.
Despite sanctions imposed by Western countries following India’s nuclear tests in May 1998, Greece signed a memorandum of understanding on Defence Cooperation with India the same year.
Co-production of military hardware and technology exchanges under the auspices of India’s Make in India programme are also being explored. For both countries, military modernisation is an important goal, with Greece’s defence expenditure increasing from US$5 billion in 2019 to US$8.4 billion in 2022. In addition, Greece boasts the largest merchant fleet in the world, representing 59 percent of the EU-controlled fleet, making it a perfect fit for India’s blue economy ambitions.
The enemy of my enemy is my friend
Confronting a tense geopolitical environment, India’s relations with Greece and Armenia have strengthened in the context of an emerging hostile Turkey-Pakistan-Azerbaijan military axis, often referred to as the Three Brothers. While Ankara belligerently raises the Kashmir issue at every international forum, Athens has consistently supported New Delhi’s stance on Kashmir as well as its bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. In return, India has supported Greece’s position on Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus, and on its islands’ dispute with Türkiye in the Aegean Sea. Jaishankar’s visit to Cyprus in December 2022 reflects this alignment on key geopolitical issues. Both India and Greece also strongly condemn international terrorism in all its forms.
Opportunities for economic cooperation
India and Greece aim to double their bilateral trade by 2030, which valued around US$2 billion in 2022-2023. With its rebounded economy, Greece has returned to the global scene as a credible economic player. Yet the country still has the second-lowest level of GDP per capita in the EU after Bulgaria.
India has supported Greece’s position on Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus, and on its islands’ dispute with Türkiye in the Aegean Sea.
For Greece, India is an enormous potential market for its food products including olives, feta cheese, Greek yoghurt, Retsina and Assyrtiko wines that comprise more than a third of Greek exports. Plenty of infrastructure opportunities for Indian companies in Greece also exist—GMR’s successful bid in 2017 for the €850 million Crete airport project has paved the way for this. Even though Indian businesses have regularly participated in the annual Thessaloniki International Fair, bilateral investments have remained below potential. Greece hopes for Indian investments in strategic sectors including pharmaceuticals, renewables, technologies and agriculture in accordance with its Greece 2.0 plan for economic transformation.
The tourism sector accounts for 25 percent of Greece’s economic returns, and the country is emerging as a popular tourist destination with Indians. Direct flights would enable stronger business and tourism ties. Besides, around 20,000 Indians already work and live in Greece, and a migration and mobility agreement to facilitate the smooth flow of workers is expected to be finalised soon.
Ancient civilisations to strategic partners
The Greek pivot comprises a part of India’s broader strategy of enhancing its strategic footprint in Europe beyond the traditional powers France and Germany. In recent years, India has diversified its partnerships in the continent through engagement with the Nordic countries, Central and Eastern European states as well as the EU in Brussels.
Greece hopes for Indian investments in strategic sectors including pharmaceuticals, renewables, technologies and agriculture in accordance with its Greece 2.0 plan for economic transformation.
The institutional mechanism of a strategic partnership will enable the world’s largest and oldest democracies to translate their many areas of convergence into sustained engagement and a win-win for both sides. As PM Mitsotakis states, “The omens are favourable”.
Shairee Malhotra is an Associate Fellow with the Strategic Studies Programme at the Observer Research Foundation.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).
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