Cometh the Time to ‘Act West’

25th Aug 2015 Featured, Political-Affairs

The recently concluded nuclear agreement between P5+1 and Iran on Iran’s nuclear program has altered the already complex geopolitical landscape of West Asia. In a region steeped in deep-rooted sectarian divide, the matters have become worse, as the region is grappling with the ominous rise of ISIS, and dealing with humanitarian crisis in Syria and Yemen simultaneously. These alarming developments have coincided with the strategic withdrawal of United States from the region and its pivot to Asia-Pacific.

The eternal interplay among regional powers for maximizing their influence has further compounded the situation. It appears that post nuclear deal West Asia is going to become a field for strategic maneuvering between Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Israel, thereby creating heightened security concerns for the international community.

India has deep historical ties with the Middle Eastern countries through centuries old commercial and cultural connections. In the recent past, however, India has had complex relations with regional countries, especially GCC countries, due to their support extended to Pakistan on the Kashmir issue. Despite this, India having a penchant for Non-Alignment, has tried to maintain cordial relations with the regional countries.

India has stood with Iran when it was placed under international sanctions; Iran had been one of India’s primary energy providers until the sanctions. India has made strategic investments in Iran, i.e., the Chahbahar port development project, which is not only going to boost Iran’s economy but also serve as India’s gateway to Central Asia and Afghanistan. Priority development of such a project is going to send a positive message about deliver timely on the promises made to Iran, as in the past, concerns have been raised about the delays. For example, the Chahbahar port project itself has been in the pipeline since early 2000’s.

India’s relations with Saudi Arabia have been mostly economical, concentrating more on energy trade, though every year a large number of Indian citizens participate in the ‘HAJ’ to Mecca and Medina. Lately, there has been some sort of security cooperation between the two countries with respect to trans-national crimes with wanted criminals being transferred to India.

India’s Israel policy has always been under the cloak of secrecy, restricted mostly to hi-tech military cooperation, but this veil is being gradually lifted especially due to the active efforts of the new Indian government. India is now engaging more openly with Israel with respect to technological cooperation in the agriculture sector as well as continued Israeli support in capability building of Indian defence forces. Israel is one of the largest suppliers of military hardware to India and most of the cooperation is in the niche sectors. Both countries have a shared history of facing terrorism from their respective neighborhoods and this aspect has played a vital role in bringing them together in sharing security concerns. The relationship between the two countries has flourished despite India’s continued support for the Palestinian cause.

The above-mentioned bilateral engagements of India demonstrate various degrees of her relations with the regional countries. However, with the changed regional dynamics of West Asia, it is prudent for India to deal astutely with the regional powers i.e. Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, and adopt a more focused policy for the region. India cannot afford to ignore the emerging balance of power in this region and the gamut of economic and strategic opportunities that it can offer.

India’s foreign policy with regard to West Asia has not been as pronounced as its East Asia policy (‘Look East’ or more recently, ‘Act East’) despite a renewed interest show in the region by Prime Minister Modi. However, this low key positioning is commensurate with India’s interests in the region. This low profile position can be attributed to the sensitivities of not only the regional countries but also the domestic population, owing to the fact that it is home to a large number of Muslims in the world. The religious linkage between India and the West Asian region can be traced to the existence of the sacred shrines of the Muslim community in the region. Although, it is not the case that the region and the diaspora have been abandoned to their fate, as witnessed during the large-scale evacuation executed by the Indian government in Yemen recently and the rescue operations conducted last year in the ISIS occupied territories in Iraq. It can also be safely stated that India has never eschewed its duty to the diaspora in the region historically, as evidenced by the operations conducted during First Gulf War in early 1990’s.

Often, it has been argued that India should continue with the status quo in its foreign policy outlook towards West Asia. This has been argued due to several reasons, first, the lack of over-arching influence in this region; second, the fear of being deeply involved with the anti-terrorist operations; third, the deficiencies in relation to certain essential capabilities, and last, the widespread notion of India as a ‘soft power’. India, instead of assuming a pro-active role in this region, should try to set an example for these West Asian countries so that this multi-ethnic and multi-religious region not only survives but also thrives.

However, India needs to adopt a more active foreign policy stand towards West Asia owing to its impending energy and security concerns. Around 70 per cent of India’s energy needs are sourced from West Asia, which is an important requirement to sustain high rates of economic growth. In addition to energy sources, the region also houses a large number of Indian diaspora whereby nearly 7 million Indians reside in the region and contribute nearly $ 70 billion in foreign remittance. The stability of the region is also important to India as a significant volume of India’s foreign trade passes through the Suez to markets in Western Europe, amounting to a third of our global trade, thereby making security of sea-lanes an important issue for consideration. India also needs to take into account the growing spread of Wahhabism in the region, and the threats of terrorism associated with its immediate neighborhood.

Dealing with the issue with a hands-on approach is important and India’s involvement in counter-terror operations is going to provide India with an opportunity to share its experiences as well as learn new techniques in relation to intelligence sharing and tactical support.

While India concentrates her West Asia policy on the three regional powers, she should not lose sight of the other smaller nations in the region. India has large human security (diaspora) interests in other parts of the region and active engagement with them is required to secure and protect the rights of the Indian diaspora, and economic interests in the region.

India stands at the cusp of recognition as a superpower and must follow a policy that not only carefully balances its stakes in a sensitive region such as West Asia but is also coherent with the changing global and regional security environment in order to stay on the right track.

The authors are Strategic Affairs Researcher and Research Analyst at Oval Observer Foundation respectively.

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