India-Portugal Ties: The Strategic Dimension

By Shibdas Bhattacharjee


Determiner of the de-facto of international politics is a never-ending saga that germinates new chemistry in the relations among the nations in a given time. However, one factor that can never be ruled out while discussing relations among nations in this post-globalisation era is the baggage of history. Shadow of that baggage and sense of nostalgia seem evident in the present relationship between India and Portugal but obviously with lower intensity. Portuguese leadership always gives priority to its affinity with Goa for the historic bond. During the recent visit of Portugal President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa to India; this became evident yet again.

This was the first visit of a Portuguese President to India after 2007. There is nothing wrong that in agreements and Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) getting signed between India and Portuguese delegation in Goa. But the important point is: present Portugal is looking things pragmatically keeping aside the baggage of history substantially. This is undoubtedly a welcome development. After all, it is futile to keep confined India-Portugal relation within Goa and Portuguese heritage that Goa carries. Present Portugal certainly understands that for the enhancement of bilateral relations with India, Lisbon must see things beyond Goa in respect of India to heed the unbound probabilities and diverse dimensions of overall India-Portugal relations.

India’s foreign policy is dominated by strategic needs and aspirations today. Time has made Indian policy framers more matured. However, this is a different debate. Relevant point is to find out those aspects that make or may help in evolving India-Portugal strategic partnership. From India’s perspective, things need to be judged from a broader parameter. This is related to India’s steady strategic partnership with the nations of present European Union. Here, it is relevant to mention some important points; India’s relations with all the nations of Europe Union after Britain’s withdrawal from EU, Portugal heading the European Union in the coming days and present Portugal is ruled under a Prime Minister of Indian origin who takes pride to take active role as an important member of Indian diaspora. India needs to make balance as per her relations with both United Kingdom and rest of the European Union. India traditionally had more comprehensive relations with UK. There are obvious reasons behind this.

Brexit certainly changed political equation in Europe. In present EU, India maintains steady relations with France, Germany and to a certain extent with Italy. Naturally, relation with Portugal can provide India opportunity to harness larger ground in the entire continent. In today’s context, this is very essential for India to extend her reach among other nations of Europe. This is true that India maintains direct or indirect relations with almost every nation of the European Union. But relation with multi-lateral forum and bilateral relation are different ball-games. So also, there is hardly any possibility of EU transforming into strategic forum as per need of the hour. There is no remote possibility of formation of India-EU strategic partnership for obvious reasons as prime members of the EU have some compulsions considering the existing frame of relations between EU and other stakeholders of Asia. But the more important point is: despite suffering successive onslaughts by the non-State actors, EU feels save remaining under the shade of NATO.

All these evidently display the potentialities India-Portugal strategic partnership. This is true that Portugal is never considered a big strategic player. But the things that make Portugal having larger strategic significance is its geo-strategic location. Portugal, located at the western end of Europe, can play a vital role for any aspiring nation dominating vast areas of the Atlantic Ocean. India’s greater co-operation with Portuguese can open new window to harness India’s strategic aspirations in the vast areas of the Atlantic Ocean. India’s steady relation with the Latin American nation like Brazil is also guided by the same policy. Similarly, Portugal is the most important nation in the Lusophone world having great strategic significance. Lusophone nation comprising Portugal, Brazil, Angola, Cape Verde, Mozambique and Macau having cultural affinity with Goa which is significant to enhance bilateral ties between India and Portugal.

Similarly, Portugal is an important member of various international organisations like United Nations, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, International Monetary Fund, World Bank and World Trade Organization. Portugal is an observer to the Organization of American States. As a member of such august organisations, Portugal has the advantage to make better advocacy for India not only in western Europe but in substantial part of Africa, Latin America, North America and the smaller island nations of the Atlantic Ocean. Similarly, the India-Portugal-Brazil indicates the possibilities of deeper strategic partnership.

India is playing vital role to ensure air vigilance in Portugal and contributing a lot to Portugal’s indigenous aerospace industry. India’s naval technology has made significant effort to reconstruct Portugal’s naval base afresh. India has the capability to make similar venture in other Lusophone countries. All these clearly highlight the potentialities of India-Portugal strategic partnership.

However, the point remains, why will Portugal help India in extending New Delhi’s strategic aspirations in the Atlantic Ocean and the periphery? This is undoubtedly the most valid point. Well, the pacts, agreements and MoUs singed between the leaderships of India and Portugal during latter’s recent India visit better spell out this. There is hardly any doubt in the fact that India has huge investment opportunity in Portugal, as is the case in various African nations. In the given time, Portugal seems prioritising its economic needs more than the baggage of history that is certainly a major policy shift. Present Portugal does not seem in a mood to accept US hegemony. This is another significant development and it makes India an important stakeholder.

In the given situation, when American strategic interests licking dust because of the upsurge of China and revival of Russia in different fronts, America can never afford to lose any ground to China in the Atlantic Ocean region. Diminishing US dominance in substantial part of Africa has already provided solid ground to India to expand her dominance in that continent. So also, stand of the Portugal leadership against radicalism, extremism and terrorism makes a natural tri-lateral bond and frame out larger cooperation comprising India-Portugal-US. Japan and Brazil can be natural allies in such axis against evil to keep western Europe a conflict-free region. This also reaffirms India’s status as strategic power in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Therefore, there are several probabilities that indicate strategic dimensions of India-Portugal relations. This will be interesting to see to what context India-Portugal relations develops when Lisbon will lead the European Union in the coming days. However, for India it is important to knock all doors to extend her strategic presence in both Europe and the Atlantic. Apart from anything else, this will make India’s position stronger in South East Asia, the region and beyond and send clear message to her contenders and opponents.

The writer is a Guwahati-based strategic affairs analyst