New Delhi is cultivating stronger strategic ties with its Islamic neighbours to the west, even as it acknowledges the volatile nature of the region, writes G Parthasarathy
Successive governments in New Delhi have traditionally looked eastwards to integrate the country’s economy with the fast growing economies in East and South-East Asia. This is the region extending across the Bay of Bengal, the Straits of Malacca, the South China Sea and the western Pacific Ocean. This policy approach has seen a massive transformation in New Delhi’s relations across its eastern neighbourhood, marked by increasing economic integration and expanding security ties, exchanges and co-operation. While China pursues a relentless policy of ‘strategic containment’ of India, New Delhi and Beijing are developing mechanisms for consultations to ensure that tensions on their land borders are managed and contained.
New Delhi now perceives growing challenges emanating from beyond its immediate western land borders with Pakistan. India has vast economic interests in both Iran and across the Arab world, where over 7 million Indian nationals reside and remit home around $40 billion annually. Moreover, India gets over 70 per cent of its resources of oil and gas from this region.
As shale oil and gas production grow rapidly in the US and Canada, there is a glut in global energy markets. The oil-rich countries in India’s western neighbourhood increasingly see India and China as their major growing markets. India, in turn, looks at this neighbourhood as an area of both opportunities and challenges.
Sectarian Shia-Sunni tensions, superimposed on traditional Persian-Arab rivalries, are making the strategic climate extremely volatile and uncertain. All this is happening as the traditional seven-decade-long cordiality that has characterised relations between Saudi Arabia and the US comes under strain.
The prospect of a blooming Saudi-Israeli entente is no longer an issue that is never spoken about publicly or widely.
Ever since he assumed office, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made it clear that he intends to adopt a more pro-active approach in relations with the Islamic world. This has been combined with a clear message that Islam in India has essentially been based on Sufi traditions, implying that Wahhabi extremism has not featured. Indeed,
Prime Minister Modi instituted what is now known as a ‘Look West’ approach, with path-breaking visits to Saudi Arabia and the UAE countries that have traditionally been cordial but detached in their relations with India. This has been followed by visits by Indian naval ships to Gulf states, with a view to expanding security ties. Given the huge Indian populations in these countries, there is recognition that India and its Arab neighbours share a crucial interest in stability and peace in the region. It is now acknowledged that Indian maritime and air power played a notable role in evacuating foreign nationals from Libya and Yemen.
The real game-changer regarding India’s strategic interests in its western neighbourhood, however, has been Mr Modi’s visit to Iran, where he met Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. This visit was also marked by an unprecedented trilateral India-Afghanistan-Iran Summit, where Afghan President Ashraf Ghani joined him and President Rouhani for the signing of a $150 million agreement for the development of the Chabahar Port. This project will insulate Afghanistan and India from any Pakistani effort to obstruct trade and transit links. It also guarantees Indian access to the Gulf, even as China develops the Gwadar Port along Pakistan’s Makran coast.
A separate credit of around $450 million was also pledged for a rail line linking Afghanistan to Chabahar through the Zaranj Delaram road built by India in Afghanistan. Discussions are also underway for similarly large Indian investments in an aluminium smelter and urea plants in Iran. These projects will require detailed discussions on gas prices. India, in the meantime, has steadily been stepping up imports of oil from Iran, reaching the levels that prevailed before international sanctions were imposed. Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq are set to emerge as the major suppliers of oil to India.
While India has no intention of getting drawn into Arab-Persian and sectarian rivalries and tensions in the Islamic world, it is also determined not to allow these rivalries to be fought out on Indian soil. Unlike other countries in its neighbourhood, India has ensured that its roughly 30 million Shias live at peace with their 150 million Sunni counterparts. At the same time as shaping relations with Iran and its Arab neighbours, Modi is set to become the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Israel, probably later this year. Though India enjoys a close relationship with Israel, it has consistently backed a ‘two-state solution’ to the Palestinian issue, with Israel living at peace within secure and recognised borders.
New Delhi is also fostering a growing ‘strategic partnership’ with the United States, and there has been some speculation on how this might affect India’s approach to its western Islamic neighbourhood. Both countries want that neighbourhood to remain stable and peaceful, and New Delhi recognises that if its many nationals in the region came under threat, the presence of the US 5th Fleet in Bahrain would be reassuring. But there are serious misgivings in India about the propensity of the US and some of its NATO partners to intervene in countries like Iraq, Syria and Libya, with destabilising results.
India believes that rather than getting involved, external powers should seek to be non-partisan and play a moderating role in sectarian and civilisational rivalries. For major oil importers like India and China, such an approach is advisable in the long term.
G Parthasarathy is a retired career Foreign Service Officer and was a Commissioned Officer in the Indian Army from 1963-1968. He is currently Visiting Professor at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.