Think West- A new shift in Foreign Policy
‘Think West’ is India’s policy outreach towards the Gulf which suggests new push towards more concrete strategic policies for West Asia.
The eastern front is building upon longstanding policy of ‘Act East’, whereas the western one is relatively more recent conceptually, even if India has had a historical presence in the Gulf.
The Indian diaspora in the west is now a strong community of 7 million which is an impressive source of investment and remittances. However, India’s relations with the west have been more of evolutionary.
Earlier, the relations were based mainly on energy and labour but now the new interplay among the Gulf nations offer new avenues of cooperation.
The ‘Think West’ approach is also a timely one with changing world geopolitics. The top oil exporting countries are now looking east to develop and increase its oil market as the growth in Western economies slows and the U.S. has become energy self-sufficient due to shale revolution.
Thus, the markets with the greatest demand for Middle East’s oil lie in Asia, predominantly led by the likes of China, India, Japan and South Korea.
The Changes Witnessed:
India has had long historical ties with the gulf countries, yet in last few decades, the energy imports and labour exports only defined the links between India and the region.
However, the government was committed to match India’s landmark “Act East” policy with ‘Think West’.
India and Gulf countries share impressive trade relations. With UAE only, India has reached $50 billion mark. This economic relation is further boosted by remittances sent by Indian labour migrants in the Gulf region.
PM’s visit to UAE in August 2015 was a first by an Indian prime minister in 34 years. This was reciprocated by UAE’s crown prince when he visited India in Feb 2016 and once again as Republic Day Chief Guest in 2017. This underlines the quick progress being established between both countries.
The efforts are now being made to build “a comprehensive strategic partnership”. In 2015, UAE pledged to invest $75 billion in India which is slowly picking up the momentum after the National Investment and Infrastructure Fund was established.
A joint statement by India and UAE notes the desire of the two countries “to transform the buyer-seller relationship in the energy sector to one of deeper partnership focusing on investment and joint ventures in petrochemical complexes, and cooperation in joint exploration in India, the UAE and in third countries”.
India-Saudi relationship has historically been cordial, based on mutual needs and transactional interests. There are around 2.5 million Indians in Saudi Arabia. India also imports significant share of its oil imports from Saudi Arabia.
Two pivotal diplomatic events taken place between both countries in the last decade have been
Delhi declaration (2006)
Riyadh declaration (2010)
King of Saudi Arabia became first head of the House of Saud to visit India in 51 years in 2006. The visit laid the ground for greater security, intelligence sharing and counterterrorism cooperation.
The new era of relations paid dividends with the deportation of terrorists wanted in India from Saudi Arabia. The inclusion of security and counterterrorism element is significant for bilateral ties as Saudi Arabia can exert pressure over Pakistan.
Indian Air Force also made a staging visit to Saudi Arabia in 2016 while on route to military exercises in the United Kingdom. This stopover is highly symbolic for India-Saudi ties in the security sphere.
India and Iran are close economic and strategic partners. Despite tight sanctions due to Iran’s nuclear weapons program, India never ceased its bilateral links with Iran and pursued discussions on transport networks.
In 2016, India and Iran signed the historic Chabahar deal where it commits substantial Indian investment to develop the all-weather, deep-sea port for Iran. This agreement shall significantly boost the role of the under-tapped port of Chabahar connecting Iran through India and Afghanistan to central Asia.
The Chabahar port would facilitate the trade of goods from Iran into South Asia with the Chabahar Free Trade Zone in place. India-Iran bilateral trade has zoomed past $14 billion.
Iran is an important source of oil and gas for India. Several Indian companies are investing in crude oil exploration and continued to procure it from Iran when American and EU sanctions existed and significant restrictions were levied on trade with Iran. With sanctions being lifted, the scope and potential of relations shall be increased.
Israel has emerged to be one of India’s important partners with cordial political relations and significant economic cooperation.
Trade between two countries is around $5.5 billion and further cooperation and opportunities are being established and explored in field of IT, solar energy, dairy development, water management, horticulture, animal husbandry and agriculture.
The key area of cooperation has been defence and security along with critical areas of interaction like counter terrorism and extremism, cyber security, among others.
President of India visited Israel in 2016 which will be followed by PM in 2017. This marks the growing India-Israel relationship which goes beyond India’s relations with Arab countries of the region.
There are various structural factors at play for increased relations between India and Gulf region
US’s cut on its role wrt to global security is timed with India’s aspiration to play a greater role in the Indian Ocean.
The rise of religious radicalism globally and India’s ability to largely escape it has underlined the success of India’s multicultural social fabric.
In times of financial instabilities, India has stood strong with high growth numbers.
Also, there has been change in attitude of gulf countries towards India. In 1969, India was forced to stay out of the Organization of the Islamic Conference on Pakistan’s insistence. However, countries like UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar showed solidarity with India after the Pakistan-sponsored terror attack in Uri.
Even the killings of UAE diplomats in Afghanistan has changed the ground situations between India and UAE as during the days of Taliban rule, Indian and UAE were in opposition. Thus, India has been able to carve its place in gulf region as a friend and a partner.
However, this transformation is not immediate. It began with PM Narsimha Rao who became close to Israel and shattered the myth that India cannot open up to Israel without harming its relationship with Islamic countries in West Asia.
The NDA government invited President of Iran as Republic Day Chief Guest in 2003 and that is when idea of developing Chabahar port was born.
The two declarations, King Abudllah of Saudi Arabia’s visit as Republic Day chief guest in 2006 are stepping stones in increased relation of India with west.
India has to follow a balanced approach with all the critical partner countries in the Gulf region. Due to increased sectarian clashes and terrorist attacks, the region bears the risk of becoming consistently unstable.
Also, India should tread cautiously while dealing with various countries individually as many of them have internal rivalries. Given regional differences and inter-power play issues, India should ensure that it is not seen to be taking sides or biased in the interactions.
From political perspectives, high level visits should continue to maintain the strategic dialogue with the gulf countries. India along with principal Asian economies like China, Japan, and Republic of Korea should play a catalytic role in making the region secure.
Economic and commercial cooperation should be boosted with increased investments mutually. Defence and security related interaction should be more strengthened and agenda for joint cooperation and exchange of information in combating extremism, terrorism, cyber terrorism and piracy should be developed.
Cultural interactions between nations and welfare of Indians in the region should be promoted for a better regional stability.