In the recently concluded second India-Nordic summit in Copenhagen, discussions were focused on "international peace and security, including the conflict in Ukraine, multilateral cooperation, green transition and climate change, the blue economy, innovation and digitalisation."
The summit and the bilateral meetings on the sidelines underscore the growing importance of the Nordic sub-region in India's Europe policy.
Nordic as a region consists of five states: Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland. These states are located in northern Europe, near the Arctic and are well-known for their high standard of living. The region has historically been absent from India's foreign policy map except for Sweden. In the 1980s, India enjoyed close politico-strategic ties with Sweden at the bilateral and multilateral levels. As India prepares to engage different sub-regions of Europe and project its interests in the Arctic region, the importance of Nordic is set to rise further.
The Russia-Ukraine War
The India-Nordic summit took place in the backdrop of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the evolving security situation in Europe. For the European states in Russia's neighbourhood, from Norway in the north to Georgia in the south, the challenge of Russian military power and strategic ambitions has never been starker. According to the India-Nordic joint statement, the Nordic states "reiterated their strong condemnation of the unlawful and unprovoked aggression against Ukraine by Russian Forces."
The changing geopolitical context in Europe has altered the role and perceptions of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Some analysts have blamed the eastward expansion of NATO into East and Central Europe, closer to the Russian borders, as one of the primary causes for the invasion of Ukraine. However, in the wake of the Russian attack, NATO membership has emerged as an attractive and perhaps necessary proposition for non-NATO states.
Of the five Nordic states, Norway, Iceland, and Denmark are NATO members. Until the Russia-Ukraine war, Sweden and Finland were reluctant to join NATO. Finland shares a long boundary with Russia, whereas Sweden pursued the policy of non-alignment. Given the strategic implications of western military bases along Russia's northern borders in these two countries, NATO membership for these two states would have been a provocative option as well.
However, the invasion of Ukraine has pushed these two states towards NATO membership. The prime ministers of Sweden and Finland met in April and announced the willingness of these two countries to consider joining NATO. The announcement was a declaration of intent and did not mean immediate membership. Nonetheless, it is an important signal and points toward the changing geopolitics.
The capabilities of Nordic states in areas like climate change, innovation, and digital technologies are critical for the transformation of India. The joint statement discusses these issues at length. Both sides envisage a mutually beneficial partnership in these sectors. However, the strategic dimensions of the India-Nordic partnership remain an underexplored theme.
The military-technological capabilities of the Nordic states cannot be overlooked. Except for Iceland, other Nordic states are known to have well-developed defence industries and have even exported weapons. Denmark and Norway participate in the joint development of the F-35 fighter aircraft, dubbed the joint strike fighter to be deployed in the service of NATO.
Sweden has been well-known as a weapons manufacturer and is the 13th largest weapons exporter globally. India had purchased Bofors guns from Sweden in the 1980s, and even though the transaction was mired in a corruption scandal, the performance of the guns was proven in the Kargil war of 1999. When India floated a tender for the acquisition of multi-role fighter aircraft for the Indian Air Force, the Swedish fighter aircraft Gripen, manufactured by Saab, was one of the contenders.
India is already under pressure from the West to reduce its weapons imports from Russia. The US has demonstrated interest in helping India to move away from Russia. Western sanctions will make it difficult for India to pay for Russian weapons moving forward. Moreover, the sanctions will likely affect Russia's ability to develop and manufacture advanced weaponry. Questions are being raised about whether Russia can supply military equipment on time.
In this context, India will have to find alternative sources of weapons to diversify its suppliers. The defence, industrial and technological capabilities of the Nordic states can be leveraged to satisfy India's requirements. For the Nordic states, changing the security situation in the region will warrant a greater focus on building military capabilities. The renewed attention is likely to boost Nordic defence industries and consequently lead to a search for newer markets.
From India's perspective, joint development and production along with technology transfer will be of greater interest. India's ongoing slow yet steady military modernisation efforts open up opportunities for Nordic suppliers. Meanwhile, as Asian defence expenditures go up, the potential exists for tapping the Indo-Pacific arms markets for Nordic exporters. India could be an ideal location for manufacturing, weapons development and exports to the Indo-Pacific market.
The India-Nordic partnership in digital technologies, port modernisation and the broader maritime sector will build capabilities in domains that are critical in the emerging national security dynamics. Militarisation of the Arctic, especially the sharpening rivalries in the wake of the Russia-Ukraine war and India's increasing interest in the geopolitics of the Arctic, will present opportunities for deepening strategic relationships.
Therefore, although the primary focus of the India-Nordic Summit was on building a mutually beneficial development partnership across sectors, the geopolitical context and strategic dimensions of India-Nordic ties will shape the trajectory of the relationship.
(Sankalp Gurjar is a strategic analyst based in Delhi and specialises in Indo-Pacific security.)
Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.