Indian foreign policy is beginning to mature from its fence-sitting approach preferred over the decades to being proactive. It now has the pressing need as well as the capacity to look beyond its immediate borders to the extended neighbourhood.
“We have been discussing the ‘Look East’ policy for some time. We should also talk about ‘Link West'”.
The above statement made by the Indian PM on the occasion of the launch of ‘Make in India’ in 2014 marks a significant development in India’s foreign policy as it articulates India’s receding inhibitions, and expanding will and capacity to play a more significant role in international politics.
As the Look East policy has graduated into Act East policy, inertia towards the region of West Asia is giving way to Link and Act West policy. It seems that India is now willing to take off its self-imposed blinders to have a mature, multi-pronged foreign policy with long-term goals in sight. For the larger part of post-independence, the region of West Asia did not receive significant attention from policy formulators in New Delhi for various reasons.
Reasons for inert West Asian foreign policy
A significant reason for this inertia has been Pakistan. With the loss of Gilgit-Baltistan to Pakistan soon after independence, India lost its border with Afghanistan through which it could have gained effective access to countries such as Iran, Iraq, Turkmenistan etc. Islamabad played its Islam card to gain the support of predominantly Muslim nations in the region towards its stance on the Kashmir issue. Yet, with the successful establishment of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) some West Asian Muslim countries like Syria, Iraq and Libya supported India’s cause in the conflict, albeit for their own reasons. For opposing the formation of Israel, and speaking on behalf of the people of Palestine, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) also refrained from speaking against India on Kashmir.
Strategic Policy Myopia
The other significant reason was a lack of strategic outlook in foreign policy decision making. Lofty idealism prevented some decisions which would have proved beneficial in the decades to come. For instance- refusing to buy the Gwadar enclave when offered by the Sultan of Oman and Muscat was a mistake. Until much recently, the region was not viewed with geo-political spectacles. The area was mostly dealt with an eye on the domestic Muslim population and the country’s energy requirements. Guided by idealism, and its own experience of partition, India refused to second the creation of Israel, and vociferously took up the cause of the Palestinian people. Despite having recognized Israel as a nation in 1950, full diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv were established only in 1992 by the visionary Prime Minister P V Narsimha Rao. India supported Egypt in the Suez crisis of 1956 and again in the 1967 war against Israel. Despite this, Israel extended much-needed help to India in 1971 (and in the Kargil war later).
Cold War complexities
Third, the Cold War also contributed to this policy lethargy. India had a definite bend towards Soviet Russia which raised suspicions in the US. Israel was formed with the USA’s backing, so embracing it was not easy for India’s Fabian Socialist leadership. Similarly, Iran which was then under the Shah regime was under the American umbrella. Iran also supported Pakistan on the Kashmir issue. On top of that, India shared a good equation with Iraq which went to war with Iran in 1980, further souring the relationship. Again, it was PM Rao who reached out to Iran in 1992 and things got better since then. India has traditionally adopted a non-committal approach to foreign policy, not only because of the myriad of complications exacerbated by the Cold War but also because there were no clear visions of any long-term objectives or vision as to India’s place in the larger global politics in the decades to come.
Moving towards ‘Link West’
Significant changes to foreign policy have set in since Prime Minister Narendra Modi occupied 7 RCR. Indian foreign policy has become more comprehensively multi-pronged, and idealism now works in tandem with realism. West Asia is now viewed as India’s extended neighbourhood, and this change in the narrative stems from multiple reasons other than a change in political leadership.
India’s Growing Economic Clout
First, with steadier and faster growth, India’s economy is expanding impressively. Many economic reforms and associated initiatives like Make in India undertaken by the Modi government have enhanced the ease of doing business in India. Coupled with the PM’s capability of striking a favourable note with other leaders, India has become an attractive investment hub. West Asian countries, primarily the Gulf countries have acquired affluence through oil business and are looking for avenues to invest this wealth. America’s increasingly favourable disposition towards India also has a positive impact on their perception of India. Among the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have become key trading partners with India. A Free Trade Agreement is being chalked out. Saudi Arabia has contributed an FDI of 2.81 billion US dollars in the financial year 2021. A 44-billion-dollar deal has been signed with UAE’s ADCO and Saudi’s Aramco for building an oil refinery in Ratnagiri in Maharashtra. India and Oman signed a 1.2-billion-dollar joint venture for the largest sebacic acid plant in the region. India is jointly building the Tishreen power plant in Syria.
Rethinking among affluent West Asian countries
Second, more and more emphasis on alternate sources of energy is a source of concern in the long term for countries whose economies are entirely dependent on oil, even though there is no foreseeable phasing out of oil as a primary energy source in the near future. In any case, petroleum is a non-renewable source of energy so the supply is not inexhaustible. Oil exporting countries are waking up to this reality and looking to diversify their economies by using oil money. An expanding economy such as India is lucrative for investments. Enhancing military capacities to leverage strategic locations or trade routes can help keep them relevant and strong countries even if and when liquid gold loses its sheen. Because America’s pivot to the Indo-Pacific in light of its confrontation/competition with China has accorded India favourable positioning, many West Asian American allies are looking forward to enhancing strategic engagements with India. It can also be argued that with America revising its major foreign policy stances, nations that depend on it for security are rethinking their defence policies and seeking to develop the capacity to deal with changes that they are likely to encounter down the road.
Destabilizing forces in West Asia
Third, Arab Spring set into motion unrest in the region destabilizing previously stable regimes. As the conflicted areas became an arena for proxy war among regional and global players, warring factions were provided supplies to wage war. The chaos provided a breeding ground for Islamic extremism which resulted in the advent of ISIS on the scene. ISIS has become a global threat. Countries facing terrorist attacks and threats from ISIS understand the gravity of the situation. Additionally, Saudi Arabia, Iran and even Turkey cannot bear to have another contender claiming leadership of the Islamic world. Even after most areas under its control in Syria have been reclaimed, the organization itself with its rabid ideology continues to operate. India which has been long dogged by Pakistan sponsored terrorism has lost many citizens to it as recruits, and now it has found ground and allies as close to home as Afghanistan.
New Delhi is highly interested in forming international alliances for countering terrorism, and also in maintaining stability in the west Asian region because the spill over from the chaos in this extended neighbourhood are inimical to India’s vital national interests. This is one of the reasons India has supported Assad’s regime in Syria. All players in the region are interested in containing the spread of terrorism, and India has joined hands with some of them in confronting this challenge. For example, as the chief guest of India’s Republic Day in 2017, Abu Dhabi’s crown prince’s joint statement declared that UAE’s territory will not be used for anti-India activities, and several Indian origin terrorists of Dawood’s cohort have been extradited to India since then. Israel is one of the most effective allies India has in countering terrorism, and the two have increased cooperation over intelligence, technology and counter-terrorism tactics.
Fourth, the larger global context is marked by the US-China rivalry. India watches warily as an increasingly assertive China vies with America for the superpower status. Naturally, Washington seeks to prevent this from happening, which is why it is gravitating towards building India as an ally in the Indo-Pacific region. For India, the rise of an antagonistic neighbour bugged by the superpower syndrome is foreboding. So, it is looking to enhance its standing in the global order by creating new friends and deepening existing relations with allies. China has acquired a port in Djibouti. India’s Chabahar deal with Iran is widely acknowledged as a counter to China’s Gwadar port in Pakistan. The tug of war between Beijing and Washington, and part of India-China competition is playing out in the Indian Ocean and littoral nations are becoming pieces on the board.
Unpredictable world order
Fifth, as aforementioned, the existing world order with one dominant power no longer exists. There is greater unpredictability in world affairs. American influence has reduced, creating space for other forces to expand. The Wuhan virus pandemic has further exacerbated uncertainties. Russia has gained a foothold in the middle east with the Syrian crisis, there is no visible end to the Israel-Palestine conflict, Turkey under Erdogan is aiming for the Caliphate of the Islamic world, Iran wishes to lead the so-called Shia-crescent while engaging in anti-American rhetoric, Saudi loathes any challenge to its leadership of the Muslim world, non-state actors are getting support from opposing parties- all in all, it seems the region is sitting on a time bomb.
India needs stability in the region to ensure uninterrupted flow of energy resources at a reasonable price which is extremely crucial for the economy to perform. Most of this requirement is fulfilled from West Asia. India imports 84 per cent of its oil requirements. Iraq, Nigeria and OPEC nations were our largest suppliers. Not just India, other Asian countries like China and Japan are also dependent on the region for the same reason. In fact, energy security is one of the primary moving forces behind China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Moreover, India has a substantial expatriate community living in the region. The highest amounts of remittances are received from UAE, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. India has much to secure from enhancing its presence in the region.
Key Changes in India’s approach to West Asia
The Indian establishment comprehends the immense complexity of the scenario. Securing national interests from one party without jeopardizing relations with others is a very tough balancing task here. That is why progress has not been as forthcoming as New Delhi would wish. Still, greater awareness of the importance of the region coupled with global uncertainty and greater political will has compelled India to lose the characteristic inertia of its foreign policy.
The Iranian gateway
First, India has improved its relations with Iran. If not for the stalemate caused by the Trump administration’s abrupt change in America’s Iran policy and the threat of sanctions, India-Iran relations were on the upswing. The most important indicator of it is the Chabahar port agreement and Iran (before the US sanctions) being the highest exporter of oil to India. Building Iran as an ally is vital for India on several counts- it is the most effective counter-balance to Pakistan; Iran becoming close with China is worst-case-scenario for India; it is important for dealing with the Taliban in Afghanistan; almost half of world oil trade flows through the Strait of Hormuz; it is India’s ‘Gateway to Central Asia.’
It is to the credit of Indian diplomacy that it has skilfully balanced good relations with seemingly antagonistic players Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel. It is worth mentioning here that as per a poll conducted by the BBC in 2005, 71 percent of Iranians had a favourable view of India. New Delhi should lobby the Biden administration at least for getting exceptions from sanctions in dealing with Iran. Iran is due for elections soon and hardliner Ibrahim Raisi seems poised to win. If that happens, it is most likely that reforms will be stalled and rhetoric will become more forceful, which will make balancing more difficult for India.
The Indian Ocean as India’s Ocean
Second, there is greater maritime awareness in India today than it was a few years ago. A major causative factor is Chinese expansionist policies. Apart from the humanitarian and disaster relief assistance that India extends to Indian Ocean littoral countries, it is increasingly opening up to the idea of becoming the net security provider in the ocean. Joint naval exercises, both multilateral and bilateral are regularly conducted. Platforms such as the Indian Ocean Rim Association help India in projecting its influence. However, much more than current spending on the navy will be needed to make this a credible goal. In the meantime, initiatives such as the Project Mausam and Sagarmala are tools employed to increase India’s influence in the region. Such projects can reinvigorate the maritime relations along the Spice Routes wherein India is the fulcrum.
Strategic relations with Gulf
Third, both India and the Gulf countries have shown greater interests in taking their relationship beyond the traditional buyer-seller framework to a strategic level. Even the economic part of the relationship has deepened with the greater flow of investments, signing of joint ventures etc. The highest civilian awards have been granted to Indian PM Narendra Modi by Saudi Arabia, UAE, Palestine, Afghanistan etc. One of the greatest diplomatic victories was the then foreign minister Ms Sushma Swaraj being invited to the OIC meet in 2019 despite Pakistan’s obvious displeasure. A strategic partnership Council with Riyadh has been established. Joint military exercises such as Al Nagah and Naseem al Bahr with Oman, Ex Desert Eagle with UAE, etc are conducted frequently.
Enhancing relations with Israel
Fourth, with the better balancing of conflicting interests, India is improving its relations with Israel. 2017 was the first time an Indian PM visited Israel, and without a compensatory visit to Palestine. This successful de-hyphenation of Israel and Palestine from Indian foreign policy has created more room for India to engage with the countries in the entire region because it gives the clear signal that India is willing to engage with nations based on national interests and not just ideology. Israel has helped India with arms supplies at crucial junctures, despite embargo threats from the US. It is one of India’s largest source of arms and cutting-edge technologies and a crucial partner in countering terrorism. India’s abstention from the UNHRC resolution on 2014 airstrikes in Gaza marked the shift from previously unflinching support to Palestine. In the backdrop of the recent conflict in Gaza, India has again abstained from voting on a resolution at UNHRC.
Fifth, with the greater role envisaged in the Indian Ocean and world affairs in general, India has also started focusing on its relations with African countries and island nations in the western Indian Ocean. Over the past few years, economic and trade relations with the continent have been enhanced. Defence relations have been initiated with Seychelles, Mauritius and Madagascar. Northern African countries are also bearing the brunt of Islamist extremism, the most prominent of which is Boko Haram. Terrorism and several other avenues for greater India-Africa cooperation are present. The ten guiding principles of Africa-India engagement articulated by India in Uganda is the first instance of something akin to a vision statement with respect to India’s partnership with Africa. The India-Africa Forum summits are laying the groundwork for future engagements. However, the scenario is still lacklustre, to say the least. Part of the reason for India’s lack of coherent foreign policy with respect to the continent is because India generally suffers from a lack of comprehensive long-term vision for its role in the world.
The Path Ahead
Indian foreign policy is beginning to mature from its fence-sitting approach preferred over the decades to being proactive. It now has the pressing need as well as the capacity to look beyond its immediate borders to the extended neighbourhood. New ground has been covered, and much more needs to be done. Perhaps the foremost challenge is balancing the conflicting interests of the countries in West Asia, something at which India is performing well as of now.
It is arguable that the future world, for several decades to come, will be multipolar, and multilateral alliances will be the norm. Therefore, India should work towards making successful international alliances and projects that are based on principles of mutual trust, benefits and partnerships with like-minded nations. Projects like India Africa Growth Corridor, International Solar Alliance, International North-South Transit Corridor etc will go a long way in reducing the instabilities of a multipolar world.
Changes in the status quo cause uncertainties which are daunting on one hand and present opportunities on the other. Initiatives like the Quad are a sign of things to come. India is in a good position to leverage America’s pivot to Asia to its own advantage. Over the years, India has been able to cultivate the image of a responsible state that operates within accepted norms of international behaviour, that can be relied upon in times of needs. India provided the developing as well as the developed countries with crucial medical supplies in the midst of its own chaotic battle with the Wuhan virus. Despite operating in a world dominated by the ideology of unending capitalist expansion and exploitation, undercurrents of the high ideals of human living and behaviour are reflected in the manner India conducts itself on the international stage.
Of course, ideals and motives, no matter how worthy, are empty words unless they are translated into practical reality. India’s best bet of carving its niche in the world is through performance. Whether it is enhancing strategic strength, building alliances, implementing multilateral projects- money moves the wheel. India must perform stupendously on the economic front to boost all its other goals to fruition. Hand in hand with this, India should rediscover and re-emphasize the historical relations it shares with the West Asian countries. Cultural diplomacy is an important tool for improving relations between countries. Balanced use of both hard power and soft power are needed to achieve national interests in international relations.