One of the long-term outcomes from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s two-day visit to the United Arab Emirates is the prospect that India might actively contribute to the balance of power in the Gulf. It was the British Raj that provided security to the small and vulnerable Arab kingdoms of the eastern Gulf from the early 19th to the mid-20th century.
The relationship of the Raj with the Sheikhdoms of the eastern Arabian Peninsula was not too different from that with the Indian princely states. The Raj provided security guarantees to the Gulf regimes and guided their external relations while leaving them with considerable internal autonomy. The memory of this expansive Indian role had largely faded from New Delhi’s strategic consciousness after independence. There was nothing in the worldview of our first PM, Jawaharlal Nehru, which prevented India from undertaking a significant security role in Asia and the Indian Ocean. Nehru certainly accepted the responsibilities he inherited from the Raj for protecting the Himalayan kingdoms. He also sought to build military strategic partnerships with such important post-colonial nations as Egypt and Indonesia.
As Britain chose to withdraw from the east of Suez in the late-1960s, the Americans took charge of the Gulf and the Indian Ocean. Yet, many in the region sought to re-establish their special security partnerships with India. Oman’s Sultan Qaboos, for example, signed a defence pact with India in 1972. Delhi’s reluctance to build on the agreement underlined the general decline of emphasis on defence diplomacy in India’s foreign policy.
In the Gulf, Delhi’s focus remained riveted on coping with the challenges of growing energy dependence on the region and managing the export of its expatriate labour.
Pakistan, however, played an important role is sustaining the security legacy of the Raj in the region. Pakistan’s armed forces contributed actively to the internal and external security of the regimes in the region. Pakistan’s deepening security ties with the region put India on the political defensive.
But a number of factors are now transforming the security environment in the Gulf. Among these are the Arab Spring and its consequences for the internal stability of many regimes, the rise of Iranian power, the growing sectarian tensions between the Shia and the Sunni, the rapid growth of the Islamic State, the fall in oil prices and the prospects for a political reconciliation between America and Iran. As a result, the Gulf kingdoms have begun to rethink many of their past assumptions. For one, they have begun to look east. They recognise that China and India have emerged as the largest customers for the region’s oil as the US dependence on Gulf oil declines.
Although the US will remain the most powerful external military power in the Gulf for the foreseeable future, the Arab regimes have begun to spread their political risk by diversifying their security and political partnerships. This allows India to boldly re-imagine its role in the region. In the early 2000s, the government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee stepped up military exchanges with key countries in the Gulf. But India’s defence diplomacy in the Gulf has remained far too tentative.
Political ambivalence and bureaucratic indifference in the ministry of defence during the UPA years has meant that Delhi could not take full advantage of the new eagerness in the region for strategic partnerships with India. A significant role for Delhi in regional security is inherent in India’s size, geographic location, potential to drive collective economic growth, and strategic capabilities. As India’s comprehensive national power grew since the early 2000s, so has the demand for India’s military contributions, at both bilateral and multilateral levels, in securing the balance of power in Asia and the Indian Ocean.
Unlike the UPA government, Modi is less inhibited in acknowledging and acting on India’s new possibilities in shaping the regional balance of power. Defence and security cooperation have become quite integral to Modi’s engagement with the East Asian states and the island states of the Indian Ocean. They have also figured at the top of the PM’s agenda during his recent visit to the five Central Asian states.
But most observers would think an Indian security role in the Gulf is a bridge too far for Delhi. But the rapidly changing security environment of the Gulf and the region’s sharpening internal contradictions are likely to make India an increasingly attractive strategic partner for many kingdoms.
Although India may have forgotten its strategic past, the developments in the Gulf could nudge Delhi towards reclaiming its historic role there, a lot sooner than many think.
The writer is a consulting editor on foreign affairs for ‘The Indian Express’ and a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi