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EU to discuss FTA with India at weekend summit: top diplomat

Josep Borrell says bloc is strengthening Indo-Pacific commitment

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell says the bloc's expanded Indo-Pacific strategy seeks "like-minded partners" and is not an "alliance" against China. (Photo courtesy of the European Union)

BRUSSELS -- The European Union and India are set to discuss resuming long-suspended talks on a free trade agreement at a virtual summit on Saturday, the bloc's foreign policy chief told Nikkei.

Josep Borrell, the EU's high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, spoke ahead of the summit where the two sides are set to announce a "connectivity partnership" for transportation, energy and digital infrastructure. The bloc inked a similar agreement with Japan in 2019.

"The EU is fully committed to working toward balanced, ambitious and mutually beneficial trade and investment agreements, and we will certainly discuss this" at the summit, Borrell said.

The two sides began negotiating a deal back in 2007, but talks were halted in 2013 amid an impasse over issues including tariff cuts. The EU is already India's largest trading partner, with bilateral trade totaling 65 billion euros last year. A deal would improve the bloc's access to a market of over 1.3 billion people. Borrell said "there remains a great deal of untapped potential."

The bloc's wide-ranging new strategy for the Indo-Pacific sends "a strong political signal of the EU's renewed and significantly upgraded commitment to the region, Borrell said.

Though the EU already ranks as the Indo-Pacific's top investor and one of its biggest trading partners, the bloc "wants to contribute to the stability and prosperity of the region in a more comprehensive and effective way," Borrell said in regards to last month's initial announcement, which will be followed by a more detailed strategy document later this year.

Brussels envisions shifting gears from an approach skewed toward China, seeking to strengthen relationships with Southeast Asia and India. It aims to diversify European supply chains and take advantage of Asia's economic growth while also spreading values such as democracy and human rights.

The strategy runs the gamut "from trade and investment to fighting climate change [as well as] health and technological cooperation," said Borrell.

It also covers security. "EU member states have acknowledged for the first time the importance of a meaningful naval presence in the Indo-Pacific," he said in the Nikkei interview, adding that the bloc plans to organize more joint naval exercises and port calls with Asian countries.

France recently conducted drills with the Quad security grouping -- the U.S., Japan, India and Australia -- and Germany intends to send a frigate to the region as early as summer.

Brussels looks to work with Tokyo and other "like-minded partners" on climate change, promoting global standards for digital technologies and data flows as well as leveraging opportunities from the transition to a greener, more digital economy.

"The EU and Japan can help strengthen the rules-based international order and contribute to global and regional stability, security and prosperity," Borrell said.

This expanded engagement with other Asian nations does not mean the EU will cast aside its relationship with China.

Borrell acknowledged that Brussels and Beijing are "systemic rivals" in many areas.

"We will continue to push back with Chinese counterparts in cases of fundamental disagreement and take restrictive measures when necessary," he said, as well as "coordinate actions with like-minded partners."

But he disputed the view that the EU simply talks tough on Beijing while seeking economic benefits.

"The EU acts through all of its available means to pursue its interests," Borrell said, citing sanctions related to human rights, steps to bolster cybersecurity and controls on technologies with potential military applications.

Yet he emphasized the bloc's economic ties with Beijing, including 1.5 billion euros ($1.8 billion) in bilateral trade per day. Borrell also argued that the world cannot address climate change effectively without the cooperation of the largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

The investment deal signed by the EU and China in December reflects the complexity of this relationship. Critics within the bloc point to Beijing's human rights record. Borrell seemed to suggest that the deal's future hinges on China's response to these concerns.

Prospects for ratification "will clearly depend on how EU-China relations evolve," he said. "But our view is that for the purposes that it was designed, it is a good deal for Europe."

The EU and President Joe Biden's administration agreed in March to restart a dialogue on China. Borrell expressed optimism about Washington's return to multilateralism, reversing a retreat under Biden's predecessor, Donald Trump, that damaged ties between Europe and the U.S. The shift "opens prospects for stronger trans-Atlantic cooperation, also to address common challenges raised by China," he said.

But, he stressed, "It's not about an 'alliance' or 'war' against China," but about "promoting and defending EU interests, including our values."

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