PM Modi’s ‘Look West’ Policy Must Get Renewed to Counter China

As China expands reach, is it time for India to forge more than just a transactional relationship with West Asia?

Published24 Jul 2020, 08:24 AM IST
Opinion
4 min read

The void created by America’s diminishing interests in the Middle East seems to attract nations like Russia, China, and Israel who are eager to gain a stronger foothold in the region. With Iran attempting regional hegemony and Saudi Arabia gravitating towards Israel the security and strategic challenges in the region are only getting more and more complicated. In this backdrop, is it time for India to forge more than just a transactional relationship with West Asia?

One of the most underrated foreign policy successes of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the unexpected and unconventional engagement with the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Recognising the changing tides in the Middle East, PM Modi’s decision to engage the Saudis is both politically and economically promising.

PM Modi’s Smart Move to Cultivate Relationship with West Asia

In recent years India’s relations with West Asia were largely focused on the large Indian diaspora and oil supplies. Since the turn of the millennium India saw in West Asia not just a stable supply of oil for its growing consumption, but a strategic partner to trade in intelligence and military equipment. A precedent was set by RAW in the 1980’s by arranging for a special group of Indian Army to receive training from Mossad, despite the lack of any diplomatic ties with Israel.

For West Asia, India was a new reliable market and investment destination. Especially with the diminishing demands in the western markets India with its increasing demand for power was an appealing partner. India also provided a safe haven for investment in infrastructure and other projects with stable returns, allowing West Asia to diversify and move towards a non- oil dependent economy. One could say it was a marriage of convenience.

Abu Dhabi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the business leaders from Gulf Cooperation Council Countries in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates on Feb 11, 2018. 
Abu Dhabi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the business leaders from Gulf Cooperation Council Countries in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates on Feb 11, 2018. 
(Photo: IANS/PIB)

Thus, Modi’s decision to engage meaningfully with the leaders of West Asia was a smart and calculated move. Throughout his tenure, PM Modi has visited Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Iran, Qatar, Jordan and also became the first Indian PM to visit Israel. Reciprocally, New Delhi has also hosted a plethora of leaders from the region.

Diminishing US Interest in Region Opens Doors for India

This increase in face time with Arab leaders has resulted in multiple trade agreements which are yet to materialise. However, these interactions have ended Pakistan’s exclusivity to the Arab- Muslim world. The extension of the Organization of Islamic Countries invitation to India despite Pakistan’s efforts to forestall India’s participation is a telltale symbol that the wind is shifting and West Asia is warming up to New Delhi.

It is, therefore, time for India to truly ‘Look West’. As the American interest in the region is dwindling, it is an opportune time for India to establish a strong presence. However, as the US is stepping back, there is a palpable sense of uncertainty in the region amounting to a strategic void. Russia, China and the regional powers are keen to increase their foothold in the region.

India Must Stay Alert About China’s Growing Presence in West Asia

While India may not be in a position to prevent China or other major powers from increasing their stakes in the region, we must ensure that we further consolidate and improve upon our strategic investments in the region. The recent Chabahar project controversy highlights the point above wherein geo-politics is already being played out in the region and if India is not cautious then we will be elbowed out by China.

The growing presence of China in the region poses multiple threats to India.

Firstly, there is a direct threat to our energy security. The steady supply of oil that India sources from the region may come under the strategic influence of China if it continues with its plan to invest in infrastructure in Iran, without any countervailing efforts from India. China has already developed the Gwadar port in Pakistan which has given it a crucial strategic toe-hold in the region.

The other threat that India faces is more political in nature and falls in the realm of public diplomacy. This is one area where as far as the region is concerned, India has fared poorly. Since the Modi government introduced the NRC and the CAA in 2019, India has alienated the Muslim world. The Organization of Islamic Countries that had a year ago extended an invitation to India has called out and asked India to secure the interests of its Muslim minorities.

PM Modi Must Capitalise on His Personal Diplomatic Outreach

Although one might contend that neither the UAE nor the Saudi Arabia have come forward with an open comment both on CAA-NRC and the abrogation of article 370, their stand at multilateral platforms is still inconspicuous. This does not bode well for our relations with the entire region which thrived on the soft power of India’s cultural and public diplomacy. It’s time to rebuild those cultural bridges and increase people to people ties as they have existed for centuries altogether.

Modi’s personal diplomatic outreach has reaped rich dividends in West Asia, with investment ties touching billions. While we see that the Arab world has strong ties with Pakistan, most Arab countries see no contradiction in having close relations with both India as well as Pakistan.

A similar straddling strategy is adopted by India in its dealing with the Arab world by refraining from bandwagoning with the US.

The different disputes between the U.S. and Iran, Iran and Saudi Arabia, and Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the eagerness of China in doling out financial aid to the region and the escalating India-Pakistan rivalry, will play a huge role in shaping India-West Asia relations.

(Sameera Sayed, a former Teach for India fellow is presently an educator at Shiv Nadar School, Noida. She is currently pursuing a PGDM in International Law and Diplomacy from Indian Society of International Law. This is a blog, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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