Today's Editorial

25 February 2018

Confronting new realities

Source: By Deccan Herald

As India seeks to pursue multi-dimensional engagement with West Asia, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to the region has merely underscored the growing salience of the region in India’s foreign policy matrix. While a lot of focus is often put on India’s ‘Act East’ policyIndia’s ‘Look West’ policy, too, has evolved rapidly. This was Modi’s fifth visit to West Asia since coming to power, and sustained high-level engagements have ensured India’s voice becoming an important one in a region which is witnessing major power rivalries playing out in the open like never before. Coming weeks after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s high-profile visit to India, Modi’s Palestine engagement — the first ever visit by an Indian Prime Minister — was being looked at with significant interest.

Underlining India’s credentials as a “Very respected country in the international arena”, the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had called for a potential Indian role in the West Asian peace process. “We believe in the importance of a possible Indian role to reach a final agreement based on international consensus and resolutions,” Abbas had suggested before Modi’s visit. Modi decided to steer clear of this as the complexities of the region were evident in the very manner of Modi’s landing at the Palestinian Authority’s presidential headquarters in Ramallah, in a chopper provided by the Jordanian government and escorted by choppers from the Israeli Air Force.

In line with New Delhi’s policy of helping Palestine build capacity, India signed six agreements worth around $50 million with the Palestinian Authority that includes setting up of a $30 million super-speciality hospital in Beit Sahur, a centre for empowering women, procurement of equipment and machinery for the Palestinian national printing press and significant investment in the education sector. Recognising his key contribution to promote ties between India and Palestine, Abbas conferred the ‘Grand Collar of the State of Palestine’ on the Indian Prime Minister.

Though Modi said India hopes for Palestine to soon emerge a sovereign and independent country in a peaceful environment through dialogue, he departed from past practice by dropping any mention of a “united” and “viable” Palestine in his remarks. Urging the two sides to move away from “violence and baggage of the past,” Modi’s shift is as much about changing realities on the ground as about New Delhi’s evolving priorities.

India’s robust engagements with the Arab Gulf states are part of this dynamic, with Modi visiting the UAE a second time in three years. Trade and economic ties are becoming central to the India-UAE relationship. The two sides signed a landmark pact awarding a consortium of Indian oil companies a 10% stake in offshore oil concession which will be the first Indian investment in the upstream oil sector of the UAE. It will go a long way in transforming a traditional buyer-seller relationship to a long-term investor relationship with stakes in each other’s strategic sectors.

Keeping the Indian workforce in mind, India and the UAE signed an MoU that aims to institutionalise the collaborative administration of contractual employment of Indian workers. In their joint statement, India and the UAE “reiterated their condemnation for efforts, including by states, to use religion to justify, support and sponsor terrorism against other countries, or to use terrorism as an instrument of state policy.” A growing convergence is emerging between India and the UAE in tackling terrorism that India has been successful in tapping into with an eye on Pakistan.

Oman has been a longstanding partner of India in West Asia where Indians constitute the largest expatriate community. With the Indian Ocean becoming a priority focus for New Delhi, Oman’s significance is only likely to grow. China’s expanding footprint in the Indian Ocean region has alerted India to the possibility of strengthening security ties with littoral states. India is likely to step up its military presence in Oman. Naval cooperation with Oman has already been gaining momentum, with Muscat giving birthing rights to Indian naval vessels to fight piracy in the Gulf of Aden. Regular naval exercises have now become the norm. India and Oman not only made their military cooperation more expansive during Modi’s visit but also made an attempt to take the relationship to other domains by enhancing cooperation in the field of health, tourism and peaceful uses of outer space.

Bureaucratic inertia

Given the nature of West Asian polities, where sultans and monarchs still pervade the region, Modi’s personal diplomacy has indeed had a significant impact in galvanising bilateral relations. But bureaucratic inertia in New Delhi continues to hamper India’s outreach. India’s engagement with West Asia should now focus on delivering on its commitments and strengthening its presence as an economic and security partner. This will be crucial as traditional powers like the US and Russia is busy in militarily jostling with each other, even as America’s stakes in the region are declining by the day.

Though the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet still cruises the Persian Gulf, ostensibly to protect energy shipments flowing out of the Strait of Hormuz, it is only a matter of time before its role evolves. In contrast, China and India are today the world’s largest net oil importers and much of their crude comes from countries in the Middle East. China and India as two emerging powers are yet to articulate a clear roadmap for the region. India is still stuck in the age-old debates of the Israel-Arab rivalry whereas West Asia has moved on. Growing rivalry between Sunni Arabs and Shia Iran is reshaping old relationships. India will have to be more pragmatic in its approach towards the region and junk old shibboleths. In the end, Modi’s visit underlined this new reality for India.

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