Within a week of the new Indian government assuming office, South Block hosted two important events: the foreign minister of Oman visited the new Indian minister of external affairs, and a ministerial delegation from Qatar followed shortly after, to hold foreign office consultations with their Indian counterparts.
The timing of these visits is significant. It could indicate some seriousness among the Indian leadership towards deepening New Delhi’s engagement with West Asia. Despite the overwhelming scale of historical and economic linkages, Indian policy-making has not taken substantial concentrated efforts towards expanding this promising engagement.
A ‘Look West Policy’ (LWP) like India’s famed ‘Look East Policy’ has often been spoken about, but there has not been a formal institutionalisation of the same. This will need a concentrated focus – like the LEP – for the region, to formulate effective policies. While trade is a significant component of this relationship, the essence of the LWP will be the multi-dimensionality of its character. As much as India trades with the region, also important are the issues of security, culture, people-to-people linkages, and those of a wider geopolitical and geostrategic nature.
Look West Policy: Primary Rationales for Induction
Diaspora & remittances: The West Asian region is home to millions of non-resident Indians; and they were responsible for approximately half of the US$69 billion worth of remittances that flowed into India in 2012. However, the introduction of the Nitaqat laws in many Gulf countries has resulted in several thousands of these workers having to return to India. While it is unfair to view the returnees as a liability, one cannot ignore the economic and social impact of this mass re-migration. India is not prepared to assimilate all these people into its own economy just yet. Already, unemployment rates are high, and the economy is not doing well. Job creation will take a while, and until then, there will be some strain on the economy.
Energy: India, being a growing economy, is perpetually energy-hungry. West Asian nations are among the primary suppliers of oil and gas that keep the Indian economy running. Stable and more improved relations between India and the region are key to securing and expanding on these sources. Projects such as the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline lay suspended due to several other reasons. However, proposed projects such as the Oman-India Pipeline, an undersea gas pipeline – that Iran too has expressed interest in – look promising. India’s attempts at ensuring energy security therefore cannot bypass engagements with the region.
Maritime security: Be it trade or energy supply routes, or even national security, the significance of an effective maritime security infrastructure in the Indian Ocean – the maritime link connecting India with several of its key West Asian partners – is pivotal to ensuring safety, stability, and disaster-management for the region. The Indian Ocean Region is a major geographical stretch through which a large chunk of the world’s business is conducted. Already, there is a constant threat of piracy in the western Indian Ocean. A concentrated policy will be needed to identify specific issues and areas of cooperation between India and West Asia, in order to ensure smooth and secure movement.
Furthermore, in recent times, there have been many debates on the concept of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ to boost connectivities between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. The two regions already have robust connectivities, but more can be done. However, if this concept of the Indo-Pacific has to become a reality, there is a need for enhanced cooperation in various areas among the key players in each region, before connecting the regions. Eventually, the LWP and the LEP can lay the foundations for the realisation of the ‘Indo-Pacific’.
National and regional security: Any form of tumult in the West Asian region invariably has an impact on India and South Asia as a whole. For strategic reasons, India seeks peace and political stability and security in the West Asian region – sentiments reciprocated by the countries of the region in their assessments towards West Asia as well as South Asia. So far, India has been pragmatic in its policies towards the West Asian region –excellent examples of which are balancing its relationships with Palestine and Israel; and Saudi Arabia and Iran, among others.
However, there is more that needs to be done, and for that, there needs to be better, more polished and astute understanding of the region in our country – especially in the light of the impending US withdrawal from Afghanistan; the thawing in the US-Iran bilateral; the ongoing civil war in Syria and its implications; implementation of the Nitaqat policies in the Gulf countries; and the rising fundamentalism, especially in the franchisee-ing nature of terror networks, among others.
These are among the primary reasons why India must and will expedite its engagement with countries in West Asia in the coming months. For the new government that took office in May 2014 – one that won the elections with a campaign based primarily on promises of improved trade, economic development, employment, investment and better infrastructure – there would not be a more apt initiative to begin with than institutionalising the LWP; updating, revolutionising and expanding New Delhi’s linkages with India’s largest trading partner-bloc, West Asia.