The year 2020 has been a watershed moment for relations between India and China following the most serious clashes between the two countries in the Galwan region of Ladakh since the 1962 war; relations between New Delhi and Beijing are at new lows.
These events have had a cascading effect on the very thought process of foreign policy, not just for India with regard to its neighbourhood but also China’s understanding of its own threat perceptions as well.
Importance of West Asia in geo-politics:
Geopolitically West Asia occupies an important position in international relations due to its geographical location and proximity to continents and countries – South Asia, China, Central Asia, Europe, and Africa.
The region is strategically significant due to its enormous energy resources, trade route links to different parts of the world and the fact that it is a place of origin for the Abrahamic religions.
It is the world largest oil-producing region accounting for 34% of world production, 45% of crude oil exports and 48% of oil proven reserves.
All powers seek a stake in the affairs of the region due to the abundance of natural resources. It is also a region plagued with instability largely due to the involvement of external forces, and sometimes due to internal conflicts.
India and West Asia:
- India’s commercial and cultural relations with the region have ancient roots.
- People to people contacts were established between the two great civilizations in those early days when the merchants of the Kulli culture in Southern Baluchistan and the early Sumer dynasties were in existence. Later the period between the rise of Islam in the 7th century A.D. to about the 10th century A.D. may be termed as the golden age of trade relations between India and the Arab world.
- An important factor influencing India’s foreign policy is her socio-cultural affinity of Indian Muslims owing to – Macca and Madina located in this region.
- Every year more than a lakh Indian Muslims go for Hajj, providing a binding force between two regions. For the past four decades trade, energy and human resource have been the principal drivers of India’s economic relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council (G.C.C.).
- India has been heavily dependent on energy supplies from the region, while Indian expatriates have constituted a substantial share of the regional labour market.
- Remittances from the region were last estimated to be fifty percent of the total of 80 million USD coming to India.
Presently, What dictates alignment now: ‘Strategic autonomy’:
- Strategic autonomy is today a term New Delhi’s power corridors are well-acquainted with.
- According to a former Foreign Secretary of India, Vijay Gokhale, the ideation of ‘strategic autonomy’ is much different from the Nehruvian era thinking of ‘non-alignment’. “The alignment is issue based, and not ideological.”
- For Beijing and New Delhi, one region where both contesting neighbours have employed similar versions of ‘non-alignment’ thinking is in West Asia, and the ethos of equitable engagement with the three poles of power in Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel, without stepping into the entanglements of the region’s multi-layered conflicts and political fissures.
- However, the year 2020 and the tectonic geopolitical shifts it has brought in its wake, from deteriorating U.S.-China ties, to the COVID-19 pandemic that started in China, followed by the Ladakh crisis, is forcing a drastic change in the geopolitical playbooks of the two Asian giants, and, by association, global security architectures as well.
- Pre-dating 2020, India’s outreach to West Asia sharpened since 2014 with the coming of the Narendra Modi government.
- As the powerful and oil-rich Gulf states looked for investment alternatives away from the West to deepen their own strategic depth, persuaded by Mr. Modi’s centralised decision-making style.
- India doubled down on its relations with the likes of Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, giving open economic and political preference to the larger Gulf region.
- While engagements with Israel moved steadily forward, Iran lagged behind, bogged down by U.S. sanctions, which in turn significantly slowed the pace of India-Iran engagements.
China’s Advantage in West Asia region:
- Meanwhile, China’s overtures have been steadily more adventurous as it realises two major shifts that have taken place in West Asia.
- First, Beijing has tried to capitalise around the thinking in the Gulf that the American security safety net is not absolute, and they need to invest more in others.
- China, being second only to the U.S. in both economic and military terms today, is the obvious engagement.
- The fact that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) obtained Chinese Wing Loong drones in 2016 a copy of U.S.’s infamous armed MQ-9 ‘Reaper’ drone that Washington refused to sell offers a good example of the Gulf’s resolve of attaining military capabilities from wherever possible.
- Second, the Gulf economies such as Saudi Arabia, even though attempting a hard shift away from their addiction to the petro dollar, will still need growing markets to sell oil to in the coming decade as they reform their economic systems. The obvious two markets here are China and India.
China’s recent play: with Iran:
- A report in September shone light on a $400 billion, 25-year understanding between Iran and China, with Beijing taking advantage of U.S. President Donald Trump’s abandonment of the Iran nuclear deal.
- Scholars have pontificated that China is no longer happy with a passive role in West Asia, and through concepts such as “negative peace” and “peace through development”, in concert with tools such as the Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing is now ready to offer an alternative model for “investment and influence”.
- Over the past month, Chinese Foreign Minister suggested to Iran for the development of a “new forum” to address the region’s tensions an alternative to the West-led ecosystems that have prevailed for decades.
- It remains to be seen, however, how China balances itself between the poles of power while backing one so aggressively.
- From India’s perspective, as it maintains its trapeze-wire balancing act of diplomacy in West Asia, the overt outreach to the Gulf and the ensuing announcements of multi-billion-dollar investments on Indian shores by entities from Saudi Arabia.
The theory of interests superseding ideology in foreign policy is fast unravelling practically, both from the perspectives of India and China.
While in the recent past, the Indo-Pacific, with the development of the Quad, has taken centre stage, other geographies such as West Asia have also started to showcase bolder examples of New Delhi and Beijing’s metamorphosing approaches towards the international arena.