Whither 'strategic' ties?

India and other principal Asian players would have to stop riding 'piggyback' on US naval presence in the region's waters.

It is time to look beyond the historic past or the vibrant present narrative of India-Gulf ties. A more meaningful assessment would be to view their relations from a futuristic perspective where the ‘strategic’ component would be overarching.

The starting point in this endeavour is recognising that while we have had a ‘new’ India and Gulf during the last two decades, both will again be different over the next decade. Assuming that the Indian economy grows at the predicted rate and the Gulf economies readjust their economic fundamentals due to low oil prices, India-Gulf ties are headed for interesting times in the economic realm.

Without going into international relations theories about what ‘strategic’ means, here are some thoughts from the India-Gulf developments since 2000 that could be construed as strategic, followed by how they may play out in future, in the context of Gulf security.

First, the genesis of strategic engagement in the economic realm could be traced to the aftermath of 9/11, 2001, when the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries adopted a ‘Look East’ policy, which included India. This facilitated India-Gulf trade grow to about $200 billion annually. Second, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah visiting India in 2006 was politically strategic because it occurred after a hiatus of 50 years.

Further, in putting aside religious ideology and dealing with India on the same level as it did with Pakistan, the GCC conveyed that economic sense is common sense. Also setting the record straight after 2000 that Kashmir was a bilateral issue and giving India the same terms as Pakistan in the Framework Agreement on Economic Cooperation in 2004 were strategic moves.

Third, in the security realm, the 2010 Riyadh Declaration and the 2015 Abu Dhabi Declaration elevated the partnership to the next (comprehensive) strategic level. Their real impact, in terms of hard security, may take a while to evolve. But in terms of soft security, the extradition of 26/11 Mumbai terror attack conspirator Abu Jindal from Saudi Arabia and Islamic State sympathisers from the UAE in the recent past are strategic.

Even in ‘hard’ security, the 2008 India-Qatar defence cooperation pact, described as an agreement “just short of stationing (Indian) troops” in Qatar is significant. India and Oman also agreed to enhance their defence the same year.

So far, so good. What next? First, if Narendra Modi’s visit to the UAE in 2015, the first by an Indian prime minister in 33 years, was a strategic recognition of this country and region, the unprecedented quick reciprocal visit of Abu Dhabi Crown Prince (and acting UAE President) Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan to India this week is of greater political-strategic value.

Second, strategic economic engagement may manifest, for example, in how the proposed $75 billion India-UAE Investment Fund is operationalised. Again, for example, investment in the food storage sector could be linked to infrastructure projects, as opposed to the GCC countries’ idea of buying cultivable agriculture land to ensure food security. This would prove to be a win-win strategic engagement. Likewise, with low oil prices, there could also be efforts to build a strategic reserve or Indian oil and gas companies may make forays in the Gulf.

Third, in the security arena, one needs to link India-GCC strategic ties to the ‘strategic’ shift away from the GCC’s reliance on the decades old US-centric security net. Over the last decade, there have been calls for exploring the idea of incorporating several international actors who could act as security guarantors in any future collective security arrangement. This includes Asia.

The point is that India and other principal Asian players would have to stop riding ‘piggyback’ on US naval presence in the region’s waters at some point and find their own means of securing their sea lanes.

Since this aligns with the security requirements of the region and assuming that the US engagement in the region will diminish in the decades ahead, it opens interesting and diversifying possibilities in the region’s security arena.

Diplomatic step

While this is long term, attempting to ease Saudi-GCC-Iran tension could be a first strategic engagement in the short and medium terms. This is a diplomatic step, which addresses New Delhi’s interests through Gulf stability. After all, India is among a few countries in the world that has commensurate ties with both parties.

Two, it could begin back channel talks with countries like Oman and Qatar (even Kuwait), which are more amen-able to a thaw in GCC-Iran tension among the six-member GCC bloc. After all, Gulf security should have GCC input, lest the GCC would put forth the same accusation that they did when they were left out of the Iran-West nuclear talks.

Three, Iran could be simultaneously engaged too. Last, India could begin diplomatic talks with principal Asian players about reaching a working consensus on Gulf security.

Amid these ‘soft’ initiatives, there is scope for a few ‘smart’ initiatives. One, both sides could look beyond anti-piracy, disaster management, anti-extremism and anti-terror cooperation. Two, contemplate more defence pacts of the India-Qatar kind. Three, ditto with India-Oman joint naval exercises.

Yes, some of these steps are beyond the comfort zone of both parties. But the US’ role as a security guarantor and India being a ‘free rider’ are not eternal. Moreover, it is possible that the GCC countries could stress the economic-security linkage and demand a quid pro quo arrangement from India.

In responding to these demands, which may mean not just addressing threats from state actors but also non-state actors like Islamic State, India would not just be addressing Gulf security dynamics but its own strategic necessities too, which is crucial in a ‘post-US’ multipolar world.

(The writer is a Dubai-based political analyst, author and Honorary Fellow of the University of Exeter, UK)

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