Over the past few years, the course of India’s relations with West Asia suggests that India appears to be moving away from its traditional “balancing” approach.
Indian foreign policy engagement in West Asia can be divided into two distinct phases, pre- and post-1991.
- Prior to 1991 India’s engagement with the West Asia was one of “political distance,”. This is on account of the dynamics of Cold War politics.
- India’s relationship with Israel was frozen due to its pro-Arab and pro-Palestine position.
India’s engagement with the region began to increase and solidify in the post cold war period due to a multitude of factors:
- the end of the Cold War
- the disintegration of Soviet Union
- India’s growing demand for oil and gas due to its accelerated economic development and
- India’s propensity to acquire great power status fuelled by aggressive economic and political nationalism
This led India to shed its ‘political distance’ approach and move closer to the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.), the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and Israel. Although, India has adopted a “balancing” approach to West Asia, which some view as a legacy of non-alignment.
Importance of West Asia
- Energy Security: For India, the energy resources of the West Asian region are extremely significant because of its growing hydrocarbon demands.
- Security: Ensuring the stability and security of the Persian Gulf region and Gulf of Aden. Piracy in the surrounding regions remains a threat to Sea Lines of Communication.
- Indian diaspora: Protection of the large Indian expatriate community in the context of persistent conflict and violence across the region. These Indians living in Gulf region remit more than one-third of the annual $69 billion remittances to India.
- Trade and Economy: West Asian countries are India’s largest trade partner. The economic ties between India and the GCC countries are moving at a faster pace increasing the mutual interdependence.
- Culture and Religion: India hosts the second largest Muslim population in the World, which views Saudi Arabia as its important pilgrimage because of the holy Shrines at Mecca and Medina.
- Investment: Investment ability of Saudi Arabia and UAE is Huge. During his visit to New Delhi, MBS said he foresaw up to $100 billion worth of Saudi investments in India over the next few years, including a plan by the Saudi Basic Industries Corp. to acquire two LNG plants.
- Regional connectivity: In Iran, India invested in its large natural gas fields and develop the Chabahar port, which is expected to be a bridge of trade between India, Iran and central Asia along with Afghanistan.
- Defence: India has strong defence and security partnership with Israel which is useful to its security and military modernisation drive.
With the US exercising less of an influence in the Gulf these days, the space is now available for India to put together a diplomatic peace initiative for the region. This led India recognize the need to develop a holistic engagement strategy, one that seeks both to strengthen economic ties and to institutionalize long-term security cooperation.
India has been a gradual push over the last few decades towards deepening bilateral ties with West Asian countries, without getting trapped in regional rivalries. There is a series of high-profile visitor from West Asia and vice versa. These visits are both symbolic and substantial.
Indian diplomacy is now used for an independent relation towards a nation irrespective of if such policy may offend another country or state. This can be viewed in de-hyphenated policy of India towards Israel and Palestine.
- Pakistan Factor: Creation of Pakistan deprived India of its “geopolitical reach” to Central and West Asia. Pakistan continues to have a strong political constituency across Muslim West Asia. This has incapacitated India from advancing its commercial interests, including the bringing to fruition of the Iran-India-Pakistan (IPI) and Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline projects.
- China factor: There is a huge power disparity between China and India in terms of hard cash and military prowess. China has already made rapid inroads in the Gulf by virtue of having acquired equity stakes in the region’s upstream oil and gas sector, and having successfully penetrated Arab markets.
- Internal Rivalry within West Asia: Despite the buoyancy in bilateral ties in recent years, India remains hyphenated with Pakistan and Arab cause. India have to delicately perform the balancing act between Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia and GCC to explore the benefits.
- Great Power rivalry: Although US has shifted its focus from middle east to Pacific Ocean region but US presence and dominance is still felt in many west Asian countries. To counter US there is significant presence of other emerging power such as Russia and China
- Economic Factor: The decline of oil and gas prices, along with the rising cost of “war conditions” has led to the slowing of Arab Gulf economies, resulting in layoffs and the nationalization of workforces at the cost of the expatriate community. The Indian government has yet to develop a policy framework to deal with such future contingencies.
The historical ties as well as the hard facts of present-day politics and economy point to a future of growing interdependence and co-operation between India and West Asia. The possibilities are almost limitless.
Although, recent escalation between Iran and Israel on the Syrian front suggests that tensions are unlikely to drop soon. Amid competing demands from West Asian powers for India to take sides, India might find it difficult to maintain a “balancing” approach even if it wanted to.
India must continue to pursue close military relationships with Persian Gulf and Gulf of Aden countries contributing to maritime security in the Arabian Sea. India must avoid grouping countries with such regional complexity into the same box. It should seek progress where its interests match.