The financial crash of 2008, which came close to bankrupting Greece, ushered in a decade of introspection within the country as it struggled to come to grips with the crisis that had enveloped it. During the decade that followed, Greece turned inwards in order to heal its wounds. But that dark period has come to an end. One indication of the turnabout is the importance that the Greek government is attaching, once again, to its foreign policy.
Since it regained its freedom in 1821, perhaps the most striking feature of the modern Greek state has been its ability to create alliances. Greece has relied upon strategic partnerships to address the challenges it has faced time and again in the past two centuries. This has involved identifying countries with a shared interest in specific issues, and working to create win-win outcomes. Recent examples are its decision to join NATO in 1952, to join the European Union in 1981 and to replace the Drachma with the Euro as its currency in 2001. These decisions aroused considerable opposition from sections of the people when they were first mooted. But they have been vindicated by the progress Greece has made since taking them, and the security they are now providing to it in dealing with the differences that have cropped up with Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Greece now faces a new set of challenges. The world we used to think of as being Eurocentric and basically homogeneous, has changed almost beyond recognition. Globalisation and the emergence of new industrial powers in the Indo-Pacific region has rapidly shifted the economic and political axis of the world eastwards. Vital maritime traffic now flows to and from European markets from the Mediterranean through the Suez Canal to the Indian Ocean, and thence through the Straits of Malacca to the Far East, where the bulk of the world’s consumer goods are now produced. This is now the single most important maritime highway in the world and is routinely referred to by Western strategic thinkers as the “Indo-Pacific”.
For Greece, which has been a maritime power since the dawn of history, and has the largest registered commercial shipping fleet in the world, the “Indo-Pacific” has created new opportunities as well as new risks. Both arise from its location, across the world’s premier trade route, in the Eastern Mediterranean. Greece’s future will depend upon its ability to take advantage of the opportunities this is crating, and to build safeguards against the risks that doing so might entail.
The latter arises from the fact that the Indo-Pacific is not only an economic highway. It has become the focus of the growing competition for hegemony between the US and China. In the last nine years, the US-China rivalry has come to dominate strategic thinking and planning across the globe. Safeguarding commerce along this highway is exceedingly difficult because, unlike the European Union, this region is a mosaic of countries with vastly different sizes, shapes, histories and cultures that have little in common with each other.
An ancient but lost connection
India is the most important and powerful component of this mosaic, and therefore potentially the country of greatest interest to Greece. For the general public in Greece, India remains a country of mythical contours, linked to its history by the figure of Alexander the Great, the Greek who more than any other pushed the civilisation’s culture eastwards.
Over the two millennia that separate that past from the present, the trajectories the two countries have followed have diverged and the connection between the two civilisations has been lost. Today that ancient connection remains alive only in historical memory, and fortuitously, to a considerable extent in music.
But the emergence of the Indo-Pacific as the premier conduit for economic globalisation has a created focal point around which the two countries can rebuild a vibrant political and economic relationship once more. The visit of the Indian foreign minister S. Jaishankar to Athens this month could become the first step in the creation of this new relationship. This has, in fact, been a Greek proposal since 2010.
Joined FM @NikosDendias and Mayor of Athens @KBakoyannis at the unveiling of Mahatma Gandhi’s statue. The universality and timelessness of the Mahatma’s message is recognised around the world. pic.twitter.com/ze9Xlxr96O
— Dr. S. Jaishankar (@DrSJaishankar) June 26, 2021
India should also consider growing maritime connectivity with Greece as a way of broadening its trade and investment footprint within Europe. In the economic field, the two countries have complementary needs and capacities. Greece has a highly developed cargo handling and logistics infrastructure that it can put at India’s disposal as it expands and diversifies its trade with the individual countries that comprise the European Union.
Within the EU parliament and executive, Greece can push for closer economic ties with India, and actively support the negotiation of a comprehensive EU-India trade agreement, work on which was announced at the recent EU-India summit at Oporto, Portugal. Such an agreement will make Greek ports of Piraeus and Thessaloniki convenient access points for Indian goods entering the European common market. It will also promote joint infrastructure projects and partnerships between Greek and Indian companies, and promote tourism and travel between the two countries. This will foster the development of Greece as a culturally rich and hauntingly beautiful alternative to western Europe as a tourism destination for the emerging Indian middle class.
Another area of common interest is maritime security. Like Greece, India faces many challenges in this field. Problems such as piracy, arms trafficking, international terrorism and violations of international law are quite common in the Indian Ocean. Greece possesses deep knowledge of these issues, as well as military capability and preparedness like few others. Greece’s participation in the European Union’s maritime mission to combat piracy off the coast of Somalia, and the strategic relations it has developed with the United Arab Emirates and other countries in the area, has already given it a role as a security provider in the region. Greece should take the opportunity provided by foreign minister Jaishankar’s visit to explore opportunities for cooperating with India in providing maritime security and upholding international law in the Indo-Pacific region. A partnership with India would allow Greece to consolidate its role as a provider of security, and link Greek interests more firmly with those of other like-minded countries operating in the Indo-Pacific.
The growing attention that India is giving to Europe is a unique opportunity for Greece to play a central role in an India-EU partnership in the coming decades. Greece has the opportunity to do so at a time when the country has returned to the international scene as a strong, credible and reliable player. This is the time to lay the foundations for a strategic dialogue that can be consolidated with concrete acts and reciprocal actions over the next few years, modelled on the excellent relations the country has established with Israel and the UAE in recent years. Greece’s ability to build alliances and link its interests to its security is, once again, the key to keeping the country free and secure and projecting it into the future.
Yannis Alexis Zepos is a former Ambassador to India and was in Delhi from 1999 till 2003. From 2009 to 2012, he was the Secretary-General of the Greek Foreign Office. Mauro Bonavita is a PhD student at Kings College, London University.