In the past few years, the strategic community in India has been increasingly concerned by the stunning rise of China, and its purported threat to India’s national security and business interests. The recent construction of a new strategic geography dubbed the “Indo-Pacific” and exhortations for India to strive for a new security architecture aimed at a “multipolar Asia” by inserting itself in the maritime disputes in the South and East China Seas are pleas for us to act assertively as a security balancer to China in concert with like-minded powers. But while China may yet emerge as a full-spectrum threat to India’s future interests, such an outcome is far from certain, and depends as much on Indian policy choices as anything else. Thoroughly distracted, many in New Delhi have lost sight of another region that represents a more immediate and major challenge to Indian security – West Asia.
Consider this – 6 million Indians call West Asia their home. Their remittances, at $19.6 billion or nearly one-third of India’s total, are also the largest fraction of any region in the world and are a crucial means of meeting the relentless demand for foreign exchange needed to fuel our escalating volume of imports. Energy is the lifeblood of a growing economy, and we currently outsource 70% of our oil imports from the Persian Gulf. According to the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook released in November 2012, the bulk of India’s increased oil imports over the next two decades will come from the Persian Gulf. Socially and culturally, Islam has deep linkages to Indian society. The future of Islam in West Asia will inevitably affect Muslim societies on the subcontinent. In short, the ties that bind India to West Asia are economic, cultural, religious, and political. Peace and stability in West Asia is therefore a profound national interest.
The on-going social and political flux in West Asia only enhances this interest and is the reason why Indian analysts and policy-makers need to concentrate on the region. The Arab uprising is the most profound geopolitical development this region has recently seen. Unlike the relatively peaceful revolutions of eastern Europe in the late 1980s, the uprisings represent a more violent and uncertain transition, where energy politics, great power domination, and religious and ethnic extremism are all major factors.
The global trend of empowerment and democracy enabled by technology has finally come home to the region and the effect is not all benign. Even for the mature democracies like India and the U.S., the use of technology has led to a severe governance gridlock by providing individuals and small, well-organized groups the ability to exert a disproportionate influence on politics. In West Asia, the near-absence of participatory state institutions makes the transition that much more fraught.
Unsurprisingly then, the Arab movements are fragmenting into a number of constituent trends. One is the growing Shia-Sunni conflict, which threatens societies with large or strategically-located Shia minorities such as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia. Another is the growing tension between GCC states led by Saudi Arabia on one side and Iran on the other, overlaid by the long-simmering US-Iran and Israel-Iran conflicts. Superimposed on these is the toxic stalemate over the resolution of the Palestinian question, which only strengthens extremists on all sides. There is potential here for a devastating regional war that could draw in proximate powers such as Israel, Iran, Turkey, and Egypt and more distant ones such as Russia and the U.S.
The implications for India under any of these scenarios are wholly negative. An escalation of instability in West Asia will have catastrophic consequences for the Indian economy and citizenry. That is why the West Asian theater must be given the highest priority by India – certainly higher than any balancing moves against China. Yet, we appear to have settled into a reactive mode by continuing to rely on U.S. mediation. India cannot afford to be passive and outsource dispute-settlement in West Asia solely to Washington. The U.S. role is perhaps yielding tactical ceasefires, but few strategic outcomes on durable conflict resolution. Moreover, the U.S. is not an unbiased actor in the region, having taken sides or been a party to some of the disputes. Nevertheless, as the external actor with the greatest clout, the U.S. needs to be part of any solution.
How can India insert itself usefully into this geopolitical cauldron? Many of the problems of West Asia are those that we have ourselves faced: unresolved colonial-era questions such as Palestine, and issues related to ethnic and sectarian violence and terrorism, often in the wake of Western intervention. Thanks to our experience in nation-building within an ethnically diverse and democratic framework, India is in a somewhat unique position of appreciating the various points of view in these disputes. It has the trust of almost all of the principal antagonists in the region as well as substantial political capital in Washington. What it lacks is the clout to achieve the needed outcomes of peace and stability.
Indian strategic analysts need to focus on ways that can make India an effective voice for peace and stability in the region, while persuading the dominant western powers to make space for new interlocutors. It won’t be easy. Here are two possible approaches. One, work within a coalition of democratic “middle powers” such as Brazil, South Africa, and Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim nation. Such an “IBSA+1″ grouping can then initiate its own solutions. Another will be to work directly with the U.S. and utilize our political capital in Washington to impress upon American politicians the need to take India’s interests into account – for example by countering the rise of Salafi groups in Syria more aggressively, or by being more even-handed in its dealings with Israel and the Palestinians. Additionally, Indian think-tanks and policy groups can encourage a more public national discussion of our interests and options in West Asia.
There is much to be done – the time to start is now.
Sarang Shidore is a foreign affairs analyst focusing on geopolitics and energy security with fifteen years of prior experience in the private sector. His regional interests include West Asia, Latin America, China, and the United States.
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