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Home > India > News > Columnists > Harsh V Pant

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India redefines ties in West Asia

October 14, 2008

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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was in India last week for his first state visit. Though the Indian government reaffirmed its commitment to the cause of Palestine, there has been a remarkable reorientation in the Indian foreign policy towards West Asia over the last few years.

At a time when that region is passing through a phase of unparalleled political, economic, and social churning, India is being called upon by the international community to play a larger role in West Asian affairs. This is evident in the pressure on India to adopt a more visible role in Iraq and to use its leverage on Iran to curtail its pursuit of nuclear weapons. In a first of its kind, India was invited by the US to participate in the West Asian peace conference at Annapolis in November 2007 as a recognition of India's growing stature in the international system.

The loosening of the structural constraints imposed by the Cold War has given India greater flexibility in carving its foreign policy in West Asia. The most notable change has been India's attempts to enhance its ties with Israel on the one hand and with its traditional antagonists such as Iran and Saudi Arabia on the other.

India is no longer coy about proclaiming its gradually strengthening ties with Israel despite apprehensions in some quarters that the Arab world will not very take very kindly to these developments. On the contrary, it seems that the Arab world has reacted cautiously so far and has deepened its engagement with India for fear of losing India wholly to Israel. But the biggest test of this balancing act remains in India's management of its relations with Iran that remains the most openly hostile neighbour of Israel.

There is also a realisation in India that India's largely pro-Arab stance in the Middle East has not been adequately rewarded by the Arab world. India has received no worthwhile backing from the Arab countries in the resolution of problems it faces in its neighborhood, especially Kashmir. There have been no serious attempts by the Arab world to put pressure on Pakistan to reign in the cross-border insurgency in Kashmir. On the contrary, the Arab world has firmly stood by Pakistan using the Organisation of Islamic Conference to build support for Islamabad [Images] and the jihadi groups in Kashmir.

It is also natural for India to ask if Arab nations, such as Jordan, have been able to keep their traditional ties with Palestine intact while building a new relationship with Israel, there is no reason for India not to take a similar route which might give it more room for diplomatic maneuvering.

Domestic constraints imposed by India's Muslim community have traditionally been a significant factor in shaping India's Middle East policy. While this remains a potent variable, there are signs that Indian foreign policy has had some success in recent times in overcoming this constraint. Again, India's relations with Israel are a case in point. India has developed these ties despite a significant opposition from the Left parties. More recently, India has chosen to side with the West on a few occasions on the issue of the Iranian nuclear program, keeping aside domestic political considerations.

India's ambivalent response to the hanging of Saddam Hussein and the passing of the United Nations Security Council resolution against Iran, however, underscores the continuing salience of domestic political imperatives in shaping Indian foreign policy. India found it difficult to unambiguously support a Security Council resolution imposing sanctions on Iran backed even by Russia [Images] and China. Domestic political constraints were also responsible for the Indian Parliament's lopsided view of the conflict in Lebanon last summer when it criticised Israeli attack against Lebanon and its civilian population but remained silent on the actions of Hezbollah against Israel.

Another factor that is increasingly shaping not only India's approach towards West Asia but also broader Indian foreign policy priorities is India's burgeoning demand for energy. Burgeoning population, coupled with rapid economic growth and industrialisation has propelled India into becoming the sixth largest energy consumer in the world, with the prospect of emerging as the fourth largest consumer in the next 4-5 years. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the focal point of India's energy diplomacy has been Middle East as around 65 percent of its energy requirements are met by this region.

It is in this context that India's relationship with Iran has come under global scrutiny in recent years and the Iran-Pakistan-Iran gas pipeline continues to generate intense commotion.

India's foreign policy towards West Asia will also be increasingly influenced by the rise of Islamic extremism and India's growing wariness about the impact of global Islamic extremist networks on its domestic Muslim population. A major impediment in India's ties with Saudi Arabia is the proliferation of Saudi-funded religious schools in the country. New Delhi [Images] is especially sensitive given Saudi links to jihadi groups such as Lashkar-e-Tayiba, which have staged attacks within India. The group has tried to recruit Indian Muslims -- so far with only limited success -- for its radical causes from the Indian Diaspora in Saudi Arabia and other states in the Persian Gulf. It has achieved limited success so far but the potential remains.

China is becoming a major player in global politics and its influence in West Asia is on the rise. The two Asian giants are vociferously trying to compete for global energy resources. China's ties with major West Asian nations are on an upswing and this would be a major factor in how India shapes its West Asian policies over the long term. The US, meanwhile, remains the predominant player in West Asia despite the visible failure of its policy in Iraq.

India's ties with the US have dramatically expanded in the last few years and this has already emerged as a significant factor in shaping Indian foreign policy towards Middle East. The most visible manifestation of this has been India's attempt to recalibrate its ties with Iran. The shadow of the US will loom large over Indian foreign policy in the years to come especially as the conflict between the US and Iran gets intensified. India is trying hard to project itself as a responsible nuclear power, especially after the signing of the civilian nuclear cooperation agreement with the US. It will be very reluctant to challenge US non-proliferation priorities in West Asia that views the Iranian nuclear program as a major challenge. Moreover, it is in India's interest now that nuclear proliferation in its neighborhood is contained.

India today is now focusing on a pragmatic engagement with all sides and has tried to shed its covertly ideological approach towards the region. Most countries in the region are also now seeking comprehensive partnerships with India based on a recognition and appreciation for India's role in shaping the emerging regional and global order.

As India tries to re-define its interests in West Asia, Indian diplomacy should become more outcome-oriented. From energy security to defence ties, from countering China to pursuing stability in the region, India now has an array of interests in West Asia. These interests will be best served by a greater degree of realism in Indian foreign policy.

Harsh Pant teaches at King's College London [Images]


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