Although it’s been a quarter-century since India came out of its era of socialist economics and pro-Soviet foreign policy, recent discussions I held with intellectuals in New Delhi and elsewhere suggest that foreign policy specialists in India are still thinking through their role in the world, especially vis-à-vis the United States, China, and West Asia.
Although the first two countries rightly attract most attention, West Asia presents acute challenges to India — plus a dash of opportunity. Some of the principal connections to that volatile region are the following.
Islamism: Islamic influence has historically nearly always moved from West Asia to other regions, including South Asia, and almost never the reverse. At present, that is the case with the Islamist doctrine — the contention that to become rich and strong, Muslims must revert to a medieval model and fully apply Islamic laws — which bellows out most strongly from Saudi Arabia and Iran. Their influence radicalises traditionally moderate Muslim populations in many regions and carries dire implications for India.
Iranian aggression: Two factors inspire a favourable Indian attitude toward Iran: Deep historical, cultural ties and a hostile Pakistan that sits between them. Unless kept in check, this predisposition can degenerate into appeasement. The Iranian regime has already deployed violence in India, its bellicosity threatens the energy supplies India depends on in the Persian Gulf, and its drive for nuclear weapons destabilises the region. In this light, New Delhi, having signed its first-ever defence agreement with Qatar in 2008 and its second with Saudi Arabia in 2014, is positive, whereas deepening Indian investment in Iran’s Chabahar port will likely hamstring Indian policy.
Goading Pakistan: Riyadh’s money supports Pakistani confrontation with India in two key ways: By massively funding madrassas and by generously helping to pay for the ‘Islamic’ nuclear bomb that is exclusively India-centric.
Trade and expatriates: As the world’s third-largest importer of crude oil, India both depends on West Asia and is needed by it to sell to. The $150 billion trade with just the six GCC countries made up about a fifth of India’s annual trade even as Indians are among the largest direct investors in Persian Gulf real estate. Indian workers in West Asia number about 6.5 million and are an important source to India of both financial remittances and of Wahhabi influence.
Alliance with Israel: Growing relations with Israel offer a singularly bright note. Both practise democracy and secularism, ally with the United States, and possess nuclear weapons. Both have substantial Muslim minorities whose loyalties remain in question as both countries face a potential existential threat from Pakistan and Iran. In areas where Israel is a world leader, such as water technology, medicine, security, and hi-tech innovation, Indians need what Israelis have to offer even as Israelis need the vast Indian market. Indeed, New Delhi is about to purchase $3 billion in Israeli military hardware, Israel’s largest-ever sale.
Already important, the India-West Asia relationship is growing with time in dangers and potential. The question looming ahead is how well Indians can derive from West Asia what benefits them while avoiding what’s toxic. Given the many complexities of that tie, this will not be easy.
(Daniel Pipes is president, Middle East Forum. The views expressed are personal)