India's interests and capabilities extend well beyond the sub-continent. This essay is part of a series that explores the geopolitical dimensions, economic ties, transnational networks, and other aspects of India's links with the Middle East (West Asia) -- a region that plays a vital role in India's economy and its future. More ...
India’s economic and commercial interests in West and Central Asia encompass an expanding and vast array of areas including trade, investment, energy security, migrant workers, counter-terrorism, littoral security, and the development and preservation of ocean resources. In assessing India’s Middle East policy, however, geopolitical analysts and regional watchers often see New Delhi as a benign actor that avoids security issues, choosing to focus more on its oil interests in the region. For many, India’s high levels of oil trade with the Gulf Cooperation Council Countries (G.C.C.) — now at over $135 billion, up from $5.5 billion in 2001 — is a clear indication of New Delhi’s principal consideration of the Middle East as a reliable source of energy. India also appears focused on the issues surrounding its growing numbers of Indian workers in Gulf States, numbering over seven million, earning remittances of around $40 billion annually.  In all, political observers say, commercial calculations weigh heavy in India’s political outreach to the Middle East.
Yet, things are beginning to change fast. Apart from its central focus on oil interests, New Delhi is starting to think strategically about the Middle East, deepening security ties with Gulf States — sharing intelligence, creating security capacities, and fashioning joint strategies to combat littoral threats. Having assumed the role of a ‘net security provider’ in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), the Indian Navy has moved to secure the near and extended neighborhood, seeking an active expansion of operational presence in Arabian Sea. Through regular presence operations and the provisioning of training and hydrographic support, the Indian navy has succeeded in forging close and friendly ties with maritime forces in the Gulf.
To a degree, the renewed emphasis on naval visits in the Gulf region stems from India’s need to protect the vital sea-lanes in the Western Indian Ocean. Indeed, since 2008, when piracy levels in the Gulf of Aden spiked, the involvement of Indian Naval in anti-piracy duties, as well as its interaction with regional navies rose significantly. New Delhi has also been worried about the rise of militant forces in the Middle East, leading to a greater Indian naval operations in ensuring the security of the regional sea-lanes. The need to effectively tackle emerging non-traditional challenges, such as armed robbery, drugs / human trafficking, illegal fishing, and maritime terrorism in the Western Indian Ocean has resulted in greater capacity-building assistance, allowing regional maritime forces to combat criminal activities in the North Western Arabian Sea.
India’s Indian Ocean Diplomacy
India’s recent naval diplomatic forays in the Middle East are part of a deliberate strategy to strengthen maritime cooperation across the Asian littorals. Since 2007, when it codified the concept of maritime diplomacy, the Indian Navy (IN) has not only expanded its engagement with Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian navies but has also built “bridges of friendship” through regular ship visits to countries along the Indian Ocean rim. This includes Iran and the Israel that Indian naval ships have regularly visited, carrying out bilateral exercises.
Since 2008, the Navy has consciously nurtured its relationships in the Arabian Sea. Apart from collaborating with regional navies in anti-piracy duties, the Indian navy has played an important role in supporting and training G.C.C. maritime forces. Through defense cooperation memoranda of understanding (MoUs) and joint committees on defense cooperation, India has substantially enhanced its exchanges in maritime training, operational exercises, and information sharing with Arab Gulf navies — many of them members of the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), an initiative pioneered by the Indian Navy.
The naval engagement with Oman has been most notable. While India and Oman entered into a “strategic partnership” in 2008, naval cooperation has been on since 1993 in the form of a biennial exercise, Naseem Al-Bahr. India has provided naval training and hydrographic support to Oman, while Omani ships have been regular visitors at Indian ports. More significantly, Oman has played a key role in sustaining India’s security efforts in the Gulf of Aden by offering berthing and replenishment facilities to naval ships, and hosting a crucial listening post in the Western Indian Ocean. With a new super-port project at Duqm nearing completion, Oman is poised to transform the maritime geopolitics of the Arabian Sea. Its growing strategic potential has led New Delhi to cultivate stronger maritime ties with Muscat.
Even with the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.), Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the naval relationship has been robust. Since 2012, Indian naval ships have regularly visited Sunni Gulf States. In February 2017, after an Indian Coast Guard ship visited Dubai port, Indian naval chief, Admiral Sunil Lanba, held extensive talks with the top brass of U.A.E.’s defense establishment, exploring ways to bolster the strategic partnership between the two navies. The talks focused on enhancing current level cooperation between naval forces of the two countries, and boosting overall strategic defense ties in the wake of the current security scenario in the region.
With Saudi Arabia too, the maritime outreach has been considerable. During Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Saudi Arabia in April 2016, there was an agreement on strengthening maritime security in the Gulf and the Indian Ocean regions, as also to improve bilateral collaboration in humanitarian assistance and evacuation in natural disasters and conflict situations. Meanwhile the Indian navy has moved to expand defense ties with Bahrain and Kuwait, through the signing of an MoU for deeper defense cooperation. In May 2016, Indian naval ships visited Manama in Bahrain, exercising with the Royal Bahrain Naval Force. A year earlier, Indian ships visited Doha, Qatar, sharing experiences of disaster management, anti-piracy, and counter-terrorism. In a clear indication of India’s desire for closer defense cooperation with U.A.E. and G.C.C. countries, New Delhi invited Shaykh Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the U.A.E. Armed Forces, to attend the Republic Day parade in January 2017.
With most Middle Eastern states, defense relationships follow a pattern. Through defense cooperation agreements and cooperation committees, India has institutionalized its cooperation with regional navies, offering naval training, sharing best practices and critical domain information. It has helped that Gulf States are members of Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), which has served as an ideal forum for giving effect to bilateral initiatives.
India’s ‘Link-West’ maritime policy is primarily driven by two considerations. The waterways of the Northern Indian Ocean are among the most important in the world, facilitating the export of large volumes of goods, oil and natural gas. India is a principal beneficiary of the trade and energy flows through the West Asian littorals. As mentioned above, the Middle East is also home to some seven million Indians, whose remittances contribute significantly to India’s economy. The sheer weight of market interaction and commercial exchanges with the Arab Gulf region amplifies its political significance, creating an urgent need for greater Indian naval presence in the region.
Importantly for India, the ongoing engagement with Arab navies has not been to the exclusion of a maritime relationship with Iran. Since 2015, whenever an Indian contingent has visited the Middle East, one warship has visited Iran. The Iranian Navy, in the grip of a ‘siege’ mind-set, has been experiencing a radical psychological transformation. With a rapid rise in naval combat capability, the naval leadership has gained the confidence to be a regional maritime power. Iran has been on the lookout for new partners to support its naval agenda of establishing control over the Western approaches to the Gulf. India offers the most potential for such a partnership.
Indian naval planners recognize the conflicts in which Iran and Middle East monarchies have been involved in Yemen and other parts of West Asia. With a series of attacks on Gulf naval vessels by Houthi militia supported by Iran, the situation has indeed turned complex. India, however, has desisted from taking sides, emphasizing its desire to help regional navies jointly fight irregular threats in the region.
The determining factor for growing Indian naval forays in the Middle East, therefore, has been New Delhi’s need to preserve its strategic stakes in the Indian Ocean. With China’s continuing efforts to make strategic inroads in West Asia, India’s geopolitical influence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) has been slowly shrinking. Reports of a new Chinese naval base in Djibouti, growing submarine visits, and a spurt in Beijing’s maritime military activities in the Western Indian Ocean have created concern in India’s security establishment. The nature of the PLA Navy’s recent submarine forays suggests a Chinese aspiration for strategic presence in the IOR. For the Indian Navy, therefore, interaction with Gulf navies is a measure aimed at retaining Indian influence in the IOR, much as it has sought to assure its partners of the commitment to strengthening maritime security in the Northern Indian Ocean region.
The Problem of Pakistan and Iran
Despite the expanding scope of maritime interaction, there appear to be limits to how far New Delhi can raise its Middle Eastern security profile. Many Sunni Gulf states have strong ties with Pakistan, and tend to support Islamabad on matters of security policy. The Pakistan navy carries our regular exercises with Middle Eastern maritime forces, and retired Pakistan Army Chief, Raheel Sharif, even leads a joint military alliance waging war with Houthi rebel forces in Yemen. Meanwhile, significant differences exist on Iran, where India and Middle Eastern states have differing views of Tehran’s growing political influence in the Middle East. New Delhi has cultivated a productive bilateral relationship with Iran, offering to assist in the construction of the Chabahar port, a facility of geostrategic significance. Yet, New Delhi finds a certain reluctance on the part of Tehran to allow Indian naval presence in the Iranian port, presumably because of its use by Revolutionary Guards forces. Meanwhile, India’s growing ties with Israel means there are limits to naval cooperation with Gulf States. To make matters more complicated, Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. are leading a political crusade against Qatar, on which New Delhi refuses to take a clear stand.
Indian policymakers are clear that many Gulf States view the United States to be the indispensable security provider in the region. A few do not see the Indian navy as a major security player, in part because of New Delhi’s unwillingness to intervene militarily in the Gulf region. Despite much cooperation with the Indian Navy on matters of regional security, capacity building, training and even joint defense production, Arab navies are happy to limit their naval cooperation with India to matters of irregular security.
For Indian regional maritime aspirations to be realized, therefore, the Indian navy will need to project a more resolute intent in the Western Indian Ocean. The Indian navy’s remains seized of the political role of sea power, as a useful complement to its wartime uses. Notwithstanding the utility of maritime “soft power,” the IN must be prepared to showcase strategic capability. While it must be a reliable and supportive partner of regional maritime forces, and forge lasting relationships, the Indian navy must also be prepared to deter challenges to its strategic primacy.
For their part, India’s political leadership must realize the importance of ‘balance’ in its Middle Eastern relationships. By engaging G.C.C. navies through joint exercises, port calls, and training programs, the Indian navy has successfully created a durable template of maritime relations in the Western Indian Ocean. It may still not be the most powerful security presence, but its persistent and tireless endeavors have has burnished New Delhi’s credentials in the region as a reliable friend. India’s Gulf diplomacy, then, has been critical in rebalancing the strategic narrative to favor Indian interests.
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