FEATURED | Cometh the Time to 'Act West' by Shashwat Tiwari and Ishita Das
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FEATURED | Cometh the Time to 'Act West' by Shashwat Tiwari and Ishita Das

FEATURED | Cometh the Time to 'Act West' by Shashwat Tiwari and Ishita Das

By Shashwat Tiwari and Ishita Das 

The recently concluded nuclear agreement between P5+1 and Iran on latter's nuclear program has altered the already complex geo-political landscape of West Asia. In a region, steeped in a deep-rooted sectarian divide, the matters have become worse, as the region is grappling with the ominous rise of ISIS, and dealing with humanitarian crisis in Syria and Yemen simultaneously. These alarming developments have coincided with the strategic withdrawal of the United States from the region  and its pivot to Asia-Pacific. 

The eternal interplay among regional powers for maximizing their influence has further compounded the situation. It appears that post nuclear deal West Asia is going to become a field of strategic maneuvering between Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel, thereby creating heightened  security concerns for the international community. 

India has deep historical ties with the Middle Eastern countries through centuries old commercial and cultural connections. In the recent past, however,India had had complex relations with regional countries especially the GCC countries due to their support extended to Pakistan on the Kashmir issue. Despite this, India having a penchant for Non-Alignment, has tried to maintain cordial relations with the regional countries. 

India has stood with Iran when latter was placed was placed under international sanctions; Iran has been one of India's primary energy provider until the sanctions. India has made strategic investments in Iran, i.e., the Chabahar Port development project, which is not only going to boost Iran's economy but also going to serve as India's gateway to Central Asia and Afghanistan. Priority development of such project is going to send a positive message about India's seriousness to it's commitments. i.e., timely delivering of deliverables pertaining to Iran. However, as in the past , concerns has been raised about the delays. For example, Chabahar Port project itself has been in the pipeline since early 2000's. 

India's relation with Saudi Arabia have been mostly economical, concentrating more on energy trade, though every year a large number of Indians participate in 'HAJ' to Mecca and Medina. Lately, there has been some sort of security cooperation (some are clandestine in nature) between the two countries with respect to trans-national crimes and counter-terror operations, with wanted fugitives being transferred to India.

India's Israel policy has been always under the cloak of secrecy, restricted mostly to hi-tech military cooperation, but this veil is being gradually lifted especially due to the active efforts of the New Indian Government under Modi Administration. India is now engaging more openly with Israel with respect to the technological cooperation in agricultural sector as well as continued Israeli support in capability building of Indian defence forces. Israel is one of the largest suppliers of military hardware to India and most of the cooperation is in the niche sectors. Both countries have shared history of facing terrorism from their respective neighbourhoods and this aspect has played a vital role in bringing them together in sharing security concerns and expertise. The relationship between these two countries has flourished despite India's continued support to Palestinian cause. 

The above mentioned bilateral engagements of India demonstrate various degree of relations with the West Asian countries. However, the changed regional dynamics of the region, it is prudent for India to deal astutely with these regional powers i.e., Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia, and adopt more focused policy for the region in coming year. India as a country cannot  afford to ignore the emerging "balance of power" and consequent shifts in West Asia and gamut of opportunities - both economic and strategic it can offer. 

India's foreign policy with regard to West Asia has not been as pronounced as its East Asia policy ('Look East' or more recently 'Act East') despite a renewed interest shown in the region by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi. However, this low key positioning is commensurate with India's interests in the region. This low key position can be attributed to the sensitiveness of not only the regional countries but also the domestic population, owing the fact that it is home to a large number of Muslims in the world. The religious linkage between India and the West Asian region can be traced to the existence of the sacred shrines of Islamic community in the country. Although, it is not the case that the region and the diaspora has been abandoned to their fate, as witnessed during the large scale evacuation executed by the Indian Government in Yemen recently and the rescue operations conducted last year inside the ISIS territories in Iraq. It can be also safely stated that India has never eschewed its duty to the diaspora in the region, historically, as evidenced by the operations conducted during the First Gulf War in early 1990's. 

Often, it has been argued that India should continue with the status quo in it's foreign policy outlook towards West Asia. This has been argued due to several reasons, first, the lack of over-arching influence in this region; second, the fear of being deeply involved with the anti-terrorist operations; third, the deficiencies in relation in certain essential capabilities; and last, the widespread notion of India as a 'Soft Power'. India, instead of assuming a proactive role in this region, should try to set an example for these West Asian countries so that this multi-ethnic and multi-religious region not only survives but also thrives. 

However, India needs to adopt a more active foreign policy stand towards West Asia owing to its impending energy and security concerns. Around 70% of India's energy needs are sourced from West Asia, which is an important requirement to sustain high rates of economic growth. In addition to energy sources, the region also houses a large number of Indian diaspora whereby nearly 7 million Indians reside in the region and contribute $US 70 billion in foreign remittance. The stability of the region is also important to India as a significant volume of India's foreign trade passed through Suez to markets in Western Europe, amounting a third of our global trade, thereby making security of sea-lanes an important issue for consideration. India also needs to take into account the growing spread of Wahhabism in the region, and the threats of terrorism associated with its immediate neighbourhood. 

Dealing with the issue with a hands-on approach is important and India's involvement in counter-terror operations is going to provide India with an opportunity to share its experiences as well as learn new techniques in relation to Intelligence sharing and tactical support.

While India concentrates her West Asia policy on the three regional powers, she should not loose sight on the other smaller nations in the region. India has Human Security (diaspora) interests in other parts of the region and active engagement with them is required to secure and protect the rights of it's own citizens and economic interests in the region. 

India stands at the cusp of recognition as a superpower and must follow a policy that not only carefully balances its stakes in a sensitive region such as West Asia but is also coherent with the changing global and regional security environment in order to stay on the right track. 

The authors are Strategic Affairs Researcher and Research Analyst at Oval Observer Foundation respectively. 

About the Authors:

Shashwat Tiwari: Shashwat Tiwari is a political science and international affairs graduate, with experience of conducting research on West Asia and Energy Issues. Prior to, joining Oval Observer Foundation he was working for the National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi as a Research Associate for West Asia maritime issues and Energy Security. He has done his Master’s in Diplomacy, Law, Business from Jindal School of International Affairs (JSIA) and has done his graduation in Political Science and Economics from University of Allahabad. He has been published previously by WorldFocus and chapters pertaining to West Asia for scholarly books published by the National Maritime Research Foundation.

Ishita Das: Ishita Das is a lawyer by training, with research interests in International Trade Law, Foreign Policy and Sustainability. Prior, joining Oval Observer, she was an Associate at International Trade Law Consultants, New Delhi, where she worked on the issues concerning Commercial Law, Arbitration Law and Consumer Law. She has a B.B.A (Hons.), L.L.B (Hons.) with a focus on Business Law from National Law University, Jodhpur. She has been published previously in Global Policy and other reputed Law Review Journals