Over the past few months, the Indo-Pacific and West Asian geo-political chessboards are witnessing active moves and countermoves of global and regional powers. There are many players, including India, moving pieces to safeguard and promote their individual interests.
All these complex games are taking place within the overarching confrontation between the entrenched but troubled super power, the United States, and an impatient China, clearly signalling that its moment of destiny has arrived.
Quad and the Indo-Pacific Chessboard
Over the past three decades, China has gradually consolidated its position in the Indo-Pacific region on the back of its economic and commercial success. That provided China with the wherewithal to initially ingress the economic lives of regional states. It utilised these openings to attempt to gather the region in a comprehensive embrace. In doing so China has shown continuing disdain for the principles that undergird the present world order.
Japan, Australia and India, the principal powers of the Indo-Pacific region, are now shedding their hesitation to counter China. The Quad framework consisting of these countries and the United States is a collective mechanism for this purpose and it is being strengthened.
Certainly, India has given up a great deal of its past restraint in cooperating with the US in the defence and security areas. This will continue to have significant repercussions on the security architecture of the Indo-Pacific region.
The Quad online summit on 12 March projected a positive agenda of cooperation on global issues including COVID-19 and climate change but that could not mask the motivation which has drawn the four powers together.
La Perouse Naval Exercise & China’s Reaction to QUAD
China’s bitter reaction to the Quad declaration showed its wariness at the development. It railed against Cold War mentality and ideological cliques and of certain countries “keen to exaggerate and hype-up the so-called ‘China threat’ to sow discord among regional countries”.
Going beyond statements, the Quad countries are earnestly undertaking more purposeful and concrete manifestations of their cooperation including in the security sector. In this context their joint naval exercises are assuming greater significance.
India has joined the three other Quad countries for the first time in La Perouse, a France led naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal. The three-day exercise which began on 5 April is, according to a French statement, meant to “promote maritime cooperation throughout a free and open Indo-Pacific”.
France has island territories in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. This gives it very extensive Exclusive Economic Zones and, thus, stakes in countering China’s objective of dominating the area.
China will closely monitor this exercise.
China’s Move on Iran in the West Asia Chessboard
France will also join India and the UAE in a naval exercise in the Gulf which is scheduled for later this month. Iran will keep a close eye on this exercise which will be held close to its waters.
Significantly, China has made a bold play on Iran which was four years in the making.
On 27 March, the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Iranian counterpart Javed Zarif signed a 25-year cooperative programme. While details of the agreement have not been revealed it is believed to focus on energy cooperation, connectivity, and infrastructure. China is believed to have committed to invest USD 400 billion during this period.
There is speculation that Iran-China will also cooperate in the defence and security sectors. These are important for Iran which is confronting the US and the Sunni states of the Arab peninsular. On its part China is downplaying this aspect because it does not wish to damage its ties with the Arab world or Israel.
China will actively push Iran towards the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It will also become a long-term buyer of its oil despite US sanctions.
India Needs to Recalibrate its Ties with Iran
Consequently, India will have to assess this agreement’s impact on its interests in West Asia. This is especially because Wang Yi has said that China-Iran ties will be “permanent and strategic”.
India-Iran ties have been under the shadow of US sanctions on the latter. While the Chabahar port project has been exempted from the sanctions regime, it has—over the past two decades—made only fitful progress.
Iran is now showing new zeal to reassure India of its continuing commitment to the Chabahar port project. However, its actions through the years, including in 2020 does not lend conviction to its claims.
Iran decided to give up cooperating with India to develop the railway to give greater connectivity between Chabahar and Afghanistan and beyond to Central Asia.
India is now showing greater purposefulness on Chabahar. In January, it gave important equipment to the port. It has also attempted to activate the interest of the Central Asian countries in linking to it via Afghanistan. Their response has been positive.
With China developing the Gwadar port in Pakistan and Iran wanting to establish linkages between Chabahar and Gwadar ports, India will have to minutely follow developments relating to connectivity lest it be shut out of the game.
The Shadow of the United States Sanctions
The real chess game underway in West Asia concerns the revival of the US-Iran nuclear deal. Former US President Donald Trump had abandoned it. Now a process of Iran-US engagement has begun. Both are emphasising maximalist positions but these are only opening moves.
The US wants Iran to straightaway adhere to all its nuclear commitments as stipulated in the deal. On its part, Iran wishes that the US should give up all the sanctions imposed by Trump. It is likely that the negotiations will be protracted. It remains to be seen how China will impact these negotiations.
With Pakistan in China’s pocket and with growing prospects of a long term and comprehensive Sino-Iran relationship, will China now pressure Afghanistan to develop a China-leaning outlook? Will a ‘BRI’ block of three states with close alignments to China emerge?
There are significant contradictions between Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan so China may not find it easy going to develop such a block. But it may attempt to do so for it will be a great geopolitical prize. India will have to carefully monitor China’s relations with all three countries and their inter-se ties as well.
There is much at stake for India with China’s moves in India’s western neighbourhood as in the Indo-Pacific region. These may be dictated mainly by its 21st century great game with the US but they will inevitably impact India.
(The writer is a former Secretary [West], Ministry of External Affairs. He can be reached @VivekKatju. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)