In his valedictory speech at the 11th Delhi Dialogue held in New Delhi on 14 December 2019, Indian External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar raised the possibility of including the western Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea in India’s ‘Indo-Pacific Policy’. This has signalled the growing importance given towards strengthening strategic partnerships with some of the Gulf and African states situated along these littorals. For India, involvement of its Gulf partners, particularly Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, would be crucial for the policy, considering the burgeoning cooperation, which would also provide an opportunity to expand its multilateral engagements with the larger West Asian region.
Currently, India’s cooperation with the wider Middle East (ME) has not just remained to oil-energy-trade, but military-security ties, maritime cooperation, strategic oil reserves, joint energy exploration projects, mutual investments, etc., have increasingly become salient characteristics. Apparently, India’s ties with Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries, considered to be the heart of the Indo-Pacific strategy, have been determined by some of these factors for the last few years, along with connectivity dimensions.
It is telling that India is mulling over including energy-rich Gulf states in its policies. Lately, New Delhi and the Gulf capitals have placed immense importance towards forging robust economic partnerships, including joint investments. For instance, with total bilateral trade of US$34.03 billion (2018-2019) and US$60 billion (2018-2019), Saudi Arabia and the UAE are India’s fourth and the third largest trading partners, respectively. As India and the UAE aspire to touch a trade figure of US$100 billion by 2020, Riyadh< also looks forward to invest the same amount in India by 2021 in sectors, including energy, refining, petrochemicals, infrastructural projects, agriculture, minerals and mining. These economically-affluent Gulf states could become important players, which will be crucial while formulating India’s Indo-Pacific strategy on the western frontiers, keeping in mind long-term strategic and economic interests.
Given the centrality of energy security in the Indo-Pacific policy, involving the oil/energy-rich Gulf states could have strategic significance. The ME is home to five of the top ten oil-producing countries, accounting for producing nearly 30 percent of world production, and India’s interest to include some of these global exporters could be given further considerations. This will also enable these exporters to explore opportunities for investments in the Indo-Pacific’s energy sector. The region has emerged as a “center of global energy demand growth, driven by continued economic and population growth“.
Flagging the importance of maritime coordination within the framework of Indo-Pacific strategy, the Indian Foreign Minister called for “establishing a free, open and cooperative platform to respond to a range of maritime challenges and needs”. Given the rising naval interactions between India and countries like Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and the UAE, inclusion of latter countries should not be a herculean task. These exercises are helping both sides in evolving a shared understanding of security challenges in the maritime domain, including sea-borne terrorism and piracy.
Simultaneously, with Saudi Arabia’s interests for a role in the Indian Ocean Region, it agreed to increase maritime cooperation with India, with their first-ever joint naval exercises slated for March 2020. This development is following Riyadh’s interests in deepening its maritime cooperation with India in the western Indian Ocean, which is not only busy but also constitutes sensitive shipping routes, such as the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the Gulf of Oman. In recent times, Saudi Arabia and Iran blamed each other for missile attacks on their respective oil tankers in some of these routes. This has, subsequently, resulted in Saudi Arabia and the UAE joining the United States-led International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC), a coalition which “aims to protect commercial vessels by ensuring the right of the freedom of navigation, provide safety for international trade, and protect the interests of allied countries”. Australia, which is emerging as India’s important strategic partner in the Indo-Pacific, has also joined the IMSC as the government is “concerned with incidents involving shipping in the Strait of Hormuz”.
The increasing India-Gulf naval engagements and the participation of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain at the mentioned maritime coalition are crucial from the standpoint of maritime security cooperation as well as to safeguard international trade via sea routes. Such a coordination fits well to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s proposal, during the 14th East Asia Summit in November 2019 in Thailand, to create “a safe and secure maritime domain in the Indo-Pacific”, and New Delhi’s plan to extend its strategy up to the western Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea.
The above arguments have been derived looking at India’s expanding strategic engagements with the Gulf states, which could be instrumental in promoting its vision of including them in the policy. This new concept underscores India’s ambitions to establish resolute partnerships with like-minded partners, through multilateral arrangements, on both sides of the Indian Ocean. That said, what could pose a challenge to India’s interest is the Gulf’s growing cooperation with China on all the fronts, including military, diplomacy, economic, maritime and technology. China has made significant inroads into the entire Middle East and the western Indian Ocean region since the past decade. It not only emerged as the ME’s largest foreign investor in 2016 but is also a major contractor for several infrastructure projects via its Belt and Road Initiative.
Furthermore, the looming tension in the region, following the assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad in January this year, remains a worrisome development. This incident is likely to usher in a visible divide and partnership formation between regional and external players, including the US, Russia and China. Tehran, for that matter, is gradually stepping up its maritime cooperation with Moscow and Beijing by conducting joint naval drills in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Oman in late December 2019. The emerging Middle Eastern geo-politics and security dynamics could, therefore, pose a challenge to India’s ambition to expand its Indo-Pacific strategy in the western part of the Indian Ocean. Most importantly, it remains to be seen whether the Gulf states could sidestep China’s gaining influence and become a part of a strategy (in which the US is also a major player) which is widely viewed as a bulwark against Beijing’s military assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region.
*** The author is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Middle East Institute, New Delhi. The views are personal ***