India’s balanced approach in Middle East

The recent visit of Indian premier Narendra Modi marks the first trip of Indian Prime Minister to Israel after 25 years of diplomatic relations. Many analysts see the visit as a clear diplomatic tilt toward Israel after years of India keeping its distance. Israel also gave a lot of importance to this state visit. Only a selected few world leaders receive Israel’s grand reception at Ben Gurion International Airport people like the President of the United States, and the Pope. So, it did not go unnoticed that India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi received the same red-carpet treatment. Indian initial foreign policy was not at all pro-Israel. After gaining independence from the British in 1947, India formed alliances with the former Soviet Union and the Arab World while Israel, which gained independence in 1948, cultivated closer relationships with the West. It was not until 1992 that India and Israel established full diplomatic ties. Both Asian giants India and China were hostile toward Israel during the Cold War era. They took up the Palestinian cause as part and parcel of their fight against Western dominance. But now this historic visit of Prime Minister Modi clearly indicative of a significant shift in India’s foreign policy orientation. This major development does not mean that India is picking up sides in the region.

The three-day trip covers the breadth of Israeli industry from agricultural and water management to tech start-ups and commerce. Indo-Israel partnership that has seen bilateral trade grow exponentially from $200 million in 1992 to $4.16 billion last year has lot of potential of further growth. Moreover, about 40 percent of Israel’s defence exports go to India making Israel its third largest defence supplier. India’s present policy towards the Middle East has many layers. In one respect, it has not changed over the millennia but recently it has been readjusted to suit the needs of one of the fastest growing economy of the world. New Delhi’s focus is almost exclusively on the Persian Gulf, with only minimal interest in the Maghreb and the Levant. But its interests and capabilities have been growing slowly across the board, though it continues to feel the region is too volatile for India to seek an active geopolitical involvement in it. New Delhi has thus cultivated a number of important bilateral relations in the region. At present, these include Israel, Iran and some of the Gulf monarchies. Partly because all these relationships are so strong and it would prefer not to have to choose between them, India avoids to pick sides in the volatile and geo-politically important region.

Delhi is making strategic investments in Riyadh and Jerusalem rival Iran, namely in the Charbahar Port. New Delhi also is one of the few foreign governments that maintain a direct line to Iran Supreme leader Ayatollah Khamanei. In recent years, India signed security and defense agreements with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Oman and Qatar. Concurrently, with regards to Syria, Delhi (like Beijing) has provided somewhat muted support to Bashar Al Assad, positioning itself somewhere between the West and Russia. As the United States contemplates its strategic options in a rapidly changing region, India’s growing role may prove one that cannot be ignored. Taken as a region, West Asia (India call Middle East as West Asia) is easily India’s largest trading partner, as India imports gas from Qatar and oil from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, while Indian corporations use Dubai as an offshore financial hub. Led by the United Arab Emirates, the Gulf countries have begun to seek a closer strategic relationship with India, urging closer military ties, helping out on the counterterrorism front and increasing high-level political engagement. This is partly due to India’s economic trajectory, but also by a desire to hedge their position in the Indian Ocean, siding with the number two military power in that region at a time that the number one power, the United States, is showing less and less interest in being the Gulf policeman.

India, as a sovereign country, is designing and readjusting its foreign policy by assessing its own political and commercial benefits. India has friendly relations with all the players in the Middle East but with no strings attached. Modi’s historic Israel visit completes the circle. Indian foreign policy, though sound in theory, has often been leaden-footed in practice. India now has the opportunity to play the honest broker along with the United States right across the Middle East geography. In coming time to simultaneously maintain all these multiple relationships, India has to be very cautions not to step over the region’s many fault lines. To be seen as friend of all India should resist any pressure to take sides and be wary of being sucked into the rivalries in the region. Non-alignment as a movement may have lost its significance, but as a foreign policy doctrine which allows India to retain its strategic autonomy even in the wake of crises and pressure, should always continue to inspire its policymakers.

About the Author
Manish Rai is a columnist for the Middle East and Af-Pak region; Editor of a geo-political news agency Views Around (VA)
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