A Case for India’s Stand on the changing contours in West Asia

by Ratish Mehta - 19 April, 2023, 12:00 1414 Views 0 Comment

The recently signed potential peace agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia brokered by China in mending diplomatic ties has invoked a wide range of discussion in regard to the deal’s impact on India’s regional interests in its extended neighbourhood. Although it would be too soon to conclude the impact of the deal on the overall region as of now, there is much scope to deconstruct India’s possible stand in the ever-evolving scenario. Having said so, the fact that the deal came to light through China’s diplomatic endeavour to bring two conflicting nations to the table, is a proposition that has prevented many observers from assessing the deal as being in New Delhi’s integral regional interest. This piece in its essence attempts to argue otherwise. Even if New Delhi may not have been an integral part of the negotiating process, it does not diminish the number of opportunities, the possible and yet-to-fructify, peace deal could open up for India’s strategic interests given if it is able to utilise the opportunities.

The changing dynamics of India’s extended neighbourhood

India’s bilateral engagement with its West Asian counterparts has gained significant prominence in recent years. Barring the decoupling from Iran in light of sanctions from Washington, New Delhi’s relations with prominent players from the region have seen significant growth in the past decade, particularly with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E). New Delhi’s strategic interests in the region have also been long associated with its dependency on energy imports from the region, which supply around 50 percent of its crude oil requirements along with 70 percent of its natural gas needs and cater to millions of its expatriates. Needless to say, a peaceful extended neighbourhood is in New Delhi’s immediate energy and strategic interest given the enormous stake it holds in the region.

At the same time, however, observers of the region have also been quick to point out how China’s lead in the diplomatic domain has invariably resulted in a loss for New Delhi’s interests in the region. New Delhi’s close partnership with Israel and their subsequent quadrilateral I2U2 (India – Israel – U. S- U.A. E) grouping, at the face of it, seem to have conflicting interests with the emerging bloc comprising of China and Iran. Moreover, the implication of a meaningful outreach with Iran by other critical players is a prospect that goes against the current American and Israeli administration’s foreign policies, thereby, promoting the argument that New Delhi’s influence in the region has also diminished given its clear associations with the bloc.

These presumptions however require a deeper analysis so far to prevent a fallacy that would obstruct New Delhi from engaging with regional partners given the re-orientation of interests. Presuming that New Delhi continues its silence on the recent development, the prospect that it is not a viable stakeholder in the event is an assessment that presents no fruitful proposition for New Delhi’s foreign policy calculations. On the contrary, though, New Delhi actively engaging in the region, not because of the recent development but rather in the wake of the changing dynamics is a situation in which New Delhi would be better off ensuring that its interests remain intact in the region.

A well-confounded question that then arises is whether India should concede to China’s leadership role in its extended neighbourhood and settle with Beijing’s status-altering initiatives and greater influence in the region. As it is often presented, such aspersions often act as a barrier that prevents New Delhi from initiating engagements with many of its neighbours and like-minded partners due to Beijing’s growing presence. The fact that Beijing’s diplomatic effort is often seen to be inversely proportional to New Delhi’s global endeavours, diminishes the argument and India’s regional strategic interests to a zero-sum game where a win for one is a loss for the other. These arguments, perhaps even rightly so, are at times based on the frictions that are bound to emerge with two of the fastest emerging countries and their aspirations in leading their regions as global figures. More so, these arguments tend to gain more momentum due to the ongoing border dispute that has burned several bridges between the two neighbouring superpowers.

Yet, these understandings, at the same time, do not alter the reality of Beijing’s growing influence that has re-oriented many Western nations to turn their attention to China as a key partner and view it as a mediator that could potentially propose peace plans in unstable regions.

Perhaps then, it heads well to presuppose that some changes even if not initiated on New Delhi’s behalf, in its essence still open up opportunities that had remained stagnant owing to differences that have dominated volatile regions. This however does not indicate that New Delhi’s position should change viz-a-viz its red lines that have been drawn in lieu of excessive Chinese assertions. Yet a compelling argument could be made that regional alterations do not always necessarily threaten Indian interests if the opportunities outweigh the attention drawn towards the prime player initiating the discourse.

For instance, New Delhi’s outreach to Tehran would do well in securing its interests with a decades-old ally and encapsulate its political will to engage with a partner that has constantly sought its support in light of sanctions from the West. The strategic importance of Tehran as a reliable ally will go a long way in safeguarding not only New Delhi’s connectivity with both Central Asia as well as Europe but at the same time will also project India as a serious and reliable contender for enhancing its connectivity with a pivotal nation that can project its interest over and beyond West Asia. Initiatives such as the Chabahar port along with the International North-South Transit Corridor (INSTC) that has remained under the shadow would in such a case be revitalised for both the countries’ benefit given its strategic importance for New Delhi’s global interests.

India’s Washington Factor in West Asia

A secondary component that substantiates the presumption that initiations from China are against India’s interest is the Washington factor in New Delhi’s strategic calculations. The significantly evolved relationship between New Delhi and Washington has more or less been understood as being a necessary partnership to contain the Chinese threat perception; yet, these bilateral cooperations have also often been misjudged for complete alignment of strategic interests of both countries. Firstly, a diplomatic retreat away from Washington should in no case be seen as synonymous with a loss for New Delhi’s regional endeavours. An effort to decouple from the U.S. influence in the West Asian region does not necessarily diminish the opportunities for New Delhi to re-orient its priorities, especially with a decades-old ally such as Iran.

Although a potential rapprochement with Tehran would invariably lead to New Delhi’s Western partners seeking guarantees that could satisfy its aspersions vis-à-vis Tehran’s nuclear programs, it would also represent New Delhi’s willingness to engage in a region that it has been shying away from in light of greater cooperation with Washington. Moreover, New Delhi would be better placed to ensure Tehran’s integration into the global financial system than Beijing which is proposing a complete decoupling from U.S. influence altogether.

Therefore, by convincing its partners in the West, New Delhi could play a far greater role in bridging the divide that exists between the West and Iran where a meaningful outreach could potentially elevate its stand in the region by presuming the role of an integrator to the international system. The timing of the outreach however would still make India’s Western allies uncomfortable, owing the process much to Beijing’s initiative to bring peace between Tehran and Riyadh. Yet, at the same time, it would also present New Delhi as a worthy contender in utilising an opportunity that many observers have been deeming as a loss for its integral regional interest.

Thus, India’s stand ultimately should view the deal as an opportunity as opposed to a growing regional challenge in which it has been side-tracked. The realities of West Asia are changing significantly, New Delhi cannot afford to stay silent and as a mere observer of the changing contours of its extended neighbourhood all the while when the region’s priorities are shifting rapidly. It must capitalise on the opportunities such reorientation of interests is presenting in the region and enhance its role as a trusted ally upon which its partners and neighbours can rely in the long term. This would also ultimately aid it in pursuing an independent policy that at the least is influenced by its own regional interests and at most makes it an important stakeholder in the region’s changing dynamics.

Ratish Mehta
Author is a post-graduate in Global Studies from Ambedkar University and holds a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science Hons from Delhi University. His research interests include understanding the role of narratives in geopolitical relations and deconstructing narratives in international affairs as well as in domestic politics within India. He was previously associated with the Pranab Mukherjee Foundation as a Research Associate and is currently a Research Associate at the Organization for Research on China and Asia.

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