July 5, 2017

Even as India attempts to ‘Act East’, it is ‘Thinking West’

The following article, co-authored with Shruti Godbole, originally appeared in the Economic Times on July 5, 2017. An excerpt is below, and the full text can be accessed here.

India has long had vital interests in the region. The first involves the safety and well-being of the almost nine million-strong Indian diaspora in West Asia, who contribute remittances of around $40 billion annually. Their security is also a politically sensitive issue for the Indian government, and has necessitated evacuations of Indian nationals, whether from Kuwait in 1990, Lebanon in 2006, Libya in 2011or Yemen in 2015.

The second interest concerns energy security, which is vital for the health and well-being of the Indian economy. About 60% of all Indian oil imports — and even more of its natural gas — come from West Asia, making India one of the major economies that is most dependent on the region for its energy needs.

A third consideration is security, including cooperation on counterterrorism. This has required India to develop important, if sometime tacit, security- and intelligence-sharing mechanisms, as well as broader defence partnerships across the region. These critical Indian interests concerning the diaspora, energy and security have required India to maintain a delicate balancing act in the region between its major players, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Israel, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar and others.

But the situation in West Asia is fluid and ever-changing. There are indications that the US might play a less active role as a security guarantor in the region. This was implied previously in Barack Obama’s ‘pivot’ to Asia, and more recently by Donald Trump’s general wariness about the US’ international military involvement.

The Arab Spring, instead of resulting in mass democratisation across the region, witnessed the breakdown of governance in Egypt and triggered civil wars in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen. The 2015 Iran nuclear agreement may have dealt with the immediate challenges posed by that country’s nuclear programme. But it has generated fears in other regional capitals, who worry that the removal of international sanctions against Iran may have emboldened Tehran and upset the balance of power.

Meanwhile, as oil prices remain low, several Gulf Arab countries are beginning to plan for a post-oil future. The Saudi Vision 2030, a signature project of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, marks an ambitious plan to reorient and modernise the Saudi economy.

While preserving ties with Iran, a vital conduit into Afghanistan and Central Asia, India has tried to seize the opportunities presented by this changing landscape to strengthen ties with the likes of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Modi has reportedly noticeably increased the proportion of the prime minister’s time spent abroad in West Asia relative to his predecessor. It’s a reflection of the increased political importance India accords to the region.

Even as India attempts to ‘Act East’, it is increasingly ‘Thinking West’. This is where Israel’s importance becomes apparent: looking west from India, it is an island of stability amid a region beset by considerable political, military, economic and social upheaval.