External Affairs

It's Time for India to Start Looking West Again

The changing situation in West Asia and the Gulf and our increasing capabilities make it advisable that we adopt a much more active forward policy in the region.

President Pranab Mukherjee laying wreath at the mausoleum of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Ramallah, Palestine on Monday. Credit: PTI

President Pranab Mukherjee laying wreath at the mausoleum of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Ramallah, Palestine on Monday. Credit: PTI

It has become a self-evident truism that West Asia and the Gulf are very important to India and affect our security and prosperity directly. If you ask the average Indian, he will tell you that it is important as a source of energy, as a destination for our exports, for the remittances that our 7 million strong diaspora in the Gulf send home, and for the pull of the holy places of one of the major religions that Indians profess, Islam.

And yet, if we are so vitally connected to West Asia, why is India’s foot print in the region so light — much lighter than it was in the 1950s when we took positions, built military relations, and worked politically with friends in the region, ranging from Gemal Abdul Nasser in Egypt to King Ibn Saud and the Shah of Iran?

The answer, to my mind, lies at least partly in paralysis induced by too much analysis.

As our familiarity with the region has grown, and our capabilities have increased, we have become more and more aware of the nature of the divisions in the region, and the intractable and complex nature of the issues.

The Suez Crisis and War of 1956 was a straightforward case of aggression against a sovereign developing and non-aligned friend. It was clear and simple to choose sides and act within our limited capabilities. On the other hand, it is much less obvious and easy to take a strong position and act on chronic regional divides – Shia-Sunni, Israel-Palestine, Kurds, Yemen, Turkey vs her enemy-of-the-day, and so on – or on civil wars and internal turmoil within West Asian states, or on jostling among regional powers like Turkey, Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The benefits of choosing sides or of intervention are less evident in these cases, as the experience of other great powers and of the superpower show. The international context has also become much more complicated – whether of Western regime change agendas pushed militarily and aggressively, or the rise of religious extremism as a political force as in the role of the Muslim Brotherhood and the rise of ISIS/Da’esh, or in the fracturing of unity among those advocating the Palestinian cause.

But I would suggest to you that while this may have been true of the decades since the First Gulf War in 1990, changes in the situation in West Asia and our increasing capabilities make it advisable that we adopt a much more active forward policy in the region if we are to pursue our growing geo-strategic interests.

Let us consider a little more closely those interests and what we might do about them.

India’s interests

Simply put, our interests in West Asia have grown exponentially as India has grown. Thirty-five years of over 6.5% GDP growth have made us much more dependent on the oil and natural gas that we import, on our exports to West Asia, and on the security of the sea-lanes that pass through and to the Gulf and the Red Sea and eastern Mediterranean, and all along the western littoral of the Indian Ocean.

We must now list maritime security in the region among our primary concerns. This is why we chose to deploy naval assets to counter piracy in the Gulf of Aden and off the Somali coast since 2008, along with other countries. The demand from our friends in the Gulf and the western Indian Ocean for Indian involvement in their maritime security has only grown. While the West, particularly the US Fifth Fleet based in Bahrain, has been a traditional provider of security, the situation and local demands are clearly changing, and space is opening up for a greater Indian role in providing maritime security. We should certainly see how the template of our existing maritime security cooperation with Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Mauritius and Seychelles could be extended westwards to Mozambique, the African coast, and partners in West Asia and the Gulf. In the last decade we have made a beginning with Oman, Qatar and others in the Gulf on maritime security. Naturally, this cannot be one size fits all and would be tailored to particular cases.

Our internal security is also more linked to West Asia than ever before. The rise of religious extremism and its use for political and terrorist purposes in West Asia and in India has acted as a force multiplier for the cross-border terrorism that Pakistan has long sponsored through the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and other such gangs. We once used to say with pride that no Indians were in Al-Qaeda. Today more than a dozen Indians are fighting for ISIS. The fight by some of us in India against communalism and polarisation in our own society gets harder in such a regional context, where extremist and terrorist groups within India get support, funding and ideological legitimacy from states and organisations in West Asia. We have already begun to work with West Asian regimes to share intelligence and act together against these terrorists, whom they may have supported in the past – and even use for their policy elsewhere – but now recognise as a threat to themselves and to India. Such cooperation is useful and can be extended, even if some West Asian partners still segment so-called “good” terrorists from “bad”.

To the extent that projects like the North-South corridor and the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline can tie into the connectivity that China is promoting in her One-Belt-One-Road proposal, we should use Chinese built and funded infrastructure

Thirdly, geopolitics have made West Asia even more important to our future. If we wish to grow at 8-9% a year, we need a peaceful extended periphery, from Suez to South East Asia, from Mozambique to Central Asia. Yet these are precisely the areas where conflict is now raging – in the long arc of deepening instability from the Maghreb to Pakistan, spreading to sub-Saharan Africa, Central Asia and into Europe. Whatever the causes – and there are multiple candidates ranging from Western regime change agendas in Iraq, Libya, Egypt and Syria, to internal strife in Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan, to the rise of authoritarian or extremist regimes in Egypt, Israel, and Turkey, to millenarian movements like Da’esh — this instability is not going away. And the Great Powers are involved directly or through proxies in ways that do not promise the early return of stability. In response to first movers from the West, Russia and China are now intervening militarily in Syria to defend their assets: the Tartus naval base, Russia’s only foreign naval base, and the Assad regime.

Fourthly, for India, West Asia represents our access to Central Asia, Russia and Afghanistan, and, potentially, overland to Europe. If we are to ensure these vital communications links, we must work actively with Iran to actually implement long discussed but unrealised ideas of the North-South Corridor, Chahbahar Port development, the India-Pakistan-Iran oil pipeline, and other connectivity projects. To the extent that these can tie into the connectivity that China is promoting in her One-Belt-One-Road proposal, we should use Chinese built and funded infrastructure, piggy-backing and leap-frogging to achieve our goals.

Partnerships are vital

The last few years have seen one secular (or what passes for secular in West Asia) regime after another brought down or to its knees by outside intervention – in Iraq, in Libya and now in Syria — or by internal developments as in Turkey. With our internal security concerns and links to the region, we have an interest in strengthening those secular forces that do survive, using our capabilities for military training, intelligence and political support towards this end. We have assets in the region, such as the Aini air base that we have built for Tajikistan, and militaries and air forces in the region have long standing links with us. Our traditional ideological links – witness the role of the Ali brothers in the early World Muslim Congresses – have withered and instead Pakistan draws sustenance from West Asia when she plays the communal Muslim card. In each of these areas we can do much more than we are doing now.

It wouldn’t of course be right to paint  an unremittingly gloomy picture of the situation in West Asia. Let us also count our blessings. This round of turmoil in the region has not led to an oil price shock, as it did on two previous occasions, bringing the world economy into recession or stagflation. The 1973 Arab-Israeli War led to the first oil shock and stagflation in 1973-6, while the 1979 Iranian revolution caused a spurt in oil prices and the recession of 1980-2. So far, we have avoided such effects. Oil prices are at a historic low due to surplus supply and diminished Western demand, and non-OPEC sources now predominate. The downside is that their diminishing dependence on West Asia for oil and price stability may have made the West more willing to take risks in pursuit of their regime change agendas in Libya, Syria and elsewhere.

Certainly India cannot achieve all its goals in this increasingly complex and uncertain region alone. We will need partners from the region. Not one but several come to mind and have been seeking a greater Indian role and partnership:

  • Iran is central to many of our concerns – maritime security, access to Central Asia, peace in Afghanistan and so on. The area where seven million of our compatriots live and work is not called the Persian Gulf for nothing. This is simple recognition of the facts of geography and weight.
  • Saudi Arabia has become a valued partner in counter-terrorism in recent years, as have other countries in the Gulf. Even where not all our attitudes coincide, as with Qatar, there is room to work together against the terrorist groups which target us.
  • Egypt, whatever her regime, has been a factor of stability in the region, which is exactly what we seek.
  • And the Gulf states are naturally interested in a greater Indian contribution to peace in the area.

India can’t afford to wait

I have tried to suggest why it may be time for a more active Indian policy towards West Asia. The situation in the region is such that it demands more active engagement and interventions. The international context makes it possible. And our interests have grown to the point where traditional stand-offishness will no longer serve.

There will always be voices of caution in India suggesting that we sit on the fence on various conflicts and do nothing about the fault lines – Shia-Sunni, Israel-Palestinian, Saudi-Iran and so on. Wait till it settles down, we will be told. However, the region is unlikely to settle down for the foreseeable future. Secondly, even if it did, by then there would be no space left for us to protect our interests.

Fortunately, we have a past that we can build on, and we have a good start. Successive PMs have visited the region. President Pranab Mukherjee is visiting Israel, Palestine and Jordan this week. But what is essential is follow up on the ground to get India even more intimately involved in the politics, security and economy of the region.

The time to act is now.

Shivshankar Menon was India’s National Security Adviser from January 2010 to May 2014