India’s Links with West Asia: Policy, Prospects and Challenges
Excellencies, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,
I am happy to be here amidst this august audience to discuss issues of topical importance for all of us. I would like to thank IDSA for organizing the Second Annual Conference on West Asia, the timing of which is apt from the regional perspective and will help us better appreciate the complex nuances of the evolving developments in a cohesive manner. The year just gone by had witnessed enhanced escalations of tensions with sectarian overtones. We also had extensive engagements with the region, with various high level visits. To recap, our Rashtraptiji concluded a successful State visit to Israel, Palestine and Jordan in October 2015, Prime Minister Modi was on official visit to the United Arab Emirate (UAE) in August 2015 and the External Affairs Minister concluded her visits to Egypt in August 2015 and to Palestine and Israel this week. In a few days from now, she heads for the First India Arab League Ministerial meeting to be held in Manama. India also received high level dignitaries from the region throughout the year – Foreign Minister of UAE visited us in September 2015, Foreign Minister of Iran in August 2015 and we ended the year with the 18th India-Iran Joint Commission Meeting last month. India held summit level talks with the North African countries as a part of its larger engagement with the whole of Africa during the 3rd India Africa Forum Summit in October 2015. We have continued this engagement more extensively in the New Year with the incoming visit of the Syrian Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister. This reflects the continuation in the trend of India’s continued strategic engagement with this vital region.
2. India shares deep historical, cultural and civilizational links with West Asia. India’s civilizational links to this region can be traced to the very beginning of the recorded history. There is a continuum of interactions between the two sides from Indus/Dilmun civilization in ancient time to the shared belief in anti-colonialism in modern times. In the second half of 20th century, these ties were further re-inforced as the two emerged from their colonial part and started weaving new realities, building new bridges of understanding and synergies to deal with the common developmental problem and new challenges of 21st century. Security through dialogue and consultation forms the basic framework of the shared belief in our commitment to achieve, preserve and enhance international peace and security. For India, West Asia is part of our extended neighbourhood and as such continued peace and stability in the region is in our strategic interest.
3. To underscore the depth of our multidimensional engagement with West Asia, the region is home to more than 7 million Indians, who contribute around US$ 40 billion in remittances annually. Our economic and commercial engagement with the region is around US$ 186 billion per annum (2013-14), making it the largest trading regional block. The region is a source for more than 60 per cent of our oil and gas requirement, critical for our energy security. The Maghreb region is a major source of phosphate and other fertilizers, a significant factor in our food security. The sizable Sovereign Wealth Funds of Gulf countries can offer significant platform for operations of Indian companies, particularly in infrastructure, important for our socio-economic development and other national initiatives like ‘Make in India’ ‘Digital India’ ‘Smart Cities’, etc. There is an increased air connectivity and tourism prospects between the two sides. Industry figure illustrate that there are 700 flights a week between India and UAE. Air connectivity is robust and vibrant, increasing every month. India has also been participating in important UN Peace Keeping Missions in the region especially in Lebanon, Syria and South Sudan.
4. After almost five years of ‘Arab Spring’ in the region, the earlier exaggerated expectations of progress towards democracy have turned out to be misplaced. On the whole, developments over the last few years have exacerbated the regional fault lines, accentuated regional rivalries with competing ideologies and skewed the regional balance of power. The year has begun with an escalation of rivalry in the Gulf region with Saudi Arabia and Iran severing diplomatic ties. It has further sharpened sectarian divide with a few Gulf monarchies openly taking sides in the conflict. The armed conflict continues unabated in Syria with mounting refugee and humanitarian crisis. Despite calls by major global powers to bring peace to this war torn country, the developments on the ground do not appear promising. The Islamic State in Iraq and ash Sham (ISIS) continues to control territories in Iraq, Syria and Northern Africa, despite global efforts to end their control. The recent horrific attacks on civilian targets in Paris and Beirut are testament to the global menace of the organizations. The fighting continues in Yemen with no signs of resolution on the horizon. Despite UN led efforts to bring a political resolution to the Libyan crisis, the conflict continues with intensified militia warfare between Islamists and pro-government forces in Tripoli, Benghazi and other parts of the country. ISIS gaining foothold in Sirte has further made the situation complicated. The easy mobility of extremists and rising number of foreign jihadis in the region has increased fears of the possibility of spread of radicalism in the home countries of foreign fighters. These challenges continue to cast fear on the peace and security of the region and have the potential of spill over to other parts of the world.
5. India’s policy in the region remains rooted in our traditional long-standing ties with the region and is non-prescriptive and non-judgmental. Despite ever changing political environment, our bilateral relations with virtually all countries of the region have been progressing structurally and we have managed to insulate our core interests from the negative fall-out of regional developments. India acknowledges that the political future discourse taking into account popular aspirations in the countries has to be determined from within and without any external interference or influence. While India is not in the business of exporting democracy, promotion of democratic values may be in alignment with India’s belief in these principles. This requires tactful approach in pursuing our interests and avoiding negative fallout of conflict in our own country.
6. On the policy option front, there are multiple challenges for India. We fully acknowledge that the complex regional situation requires a multi- pronged approach and hence our efforts to reach out to a whole cross-section of society, including think tanks, universities, academics and media towards evolving a consolidated policy formulation. I will now highlight briefly some key elements of our policy options:
- It needs to be understood that “old order neutrality” is not construed as absence of decision-making or political passivity. In fact, we are more engaged in the region than in the past. India has been asked to play more active role in the Middle East but we need to assess this based on our strategic leverages and realistic consideration of our strengths and limitations. We would not wish to create parallel mechanisms that will affect our bilateral relations.
- India remains cautious that our approach towards the region should not be misconstrued as being partisan or sectarian, as India has stayed out of any regional alliance based on sectarian or other similar considerations. We need to be sensitive to the perceptions of our own religious and ethnic mix in the population. At the same time, given the sectarian volatility in the region, we should remain prepared for any fundamental/sectarian backlash emanating from the region.
- India is strengthening its high-level G2G contacts with all the countries in West Asia keeping in view our larger diaspora, energy and security interests in the region. There have been high-level state/official visits to and from the key countries of the region in the recent past, as I have mentioned in the beginning of my remarks. This regular exchange of high-level visits has further cemented our bilateral relationships and helped the two sides to better appreciate and understand mutual concerns.
- The Government is committed to protect the interests of Indian expatriates in the Gulf and Middle East countries. These steps include, inter alia, working closely with the local authorities and employers, putting in place requisite institutional mechanisms, community outreach, initiation of Indian Community Welfare Funds and rendering regular consular assistance. We have made concerted efforts to enter into bilateral Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) with all the major destination countries to enlist the commitment of the host governments to ensure better protection and welfare of Indian emigrants. There are MoUs with UAE, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Bahrain. An agreement on labour cooperation for domestic workers recruitment was signed with Saudi Arabia.
- The recent set of events involving escalation of tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran and the ensuing diplomatic brinkmanship being carried out by the allies of each side, represents a new high in the escalation of regional tensions, which does not augur well for the region as a whole. It requires careful monitoring and continuous assessment of the situation for preserving our vital stakes and interests while avoiding the risk of entanglement.
- India remains strongly committed to a stable, peaceful and democratic Yemen, which is in the interest of global and regional peace and security. India has urged all concerned parties in the conflict to resolve their differences amicably and abide by the relevant UN resolution, the terms of the Peace and National Partnership Agreement and the outcomes of the National Dialogue Conference. India had successfully carried out the evacuation of 4,741 Indian nationals as well as 1,947 foreign citizens from 48 countries through ‘Operation Rahat’ which I was personally associated with over six weeks. This earned a lot of goodwill for India among the comity of nations.
- We have noted with satisfaction that the situation is slowly stabilizing in Egypt. There is a commitment on the part of its leadership for political stabilization and economic revival. We are encouraged at the implementation of political transitional roadmap with the adoption of new Constitution, conduct of Presidential elections and recent conclusion of Parliamentary elections. The commitment of its political leadership to economic reforms and investment friendly polices are commendable and have already started showing early signs of revival.
- India is deeply concerned at the ongoing violence in Syria and the loss of human lives. India supports a UN-backed, Syrian-led comprehensive political settlement taking into account the aspirations of the Syrian people in Syria. We firmly believe that there can be no military solution to the crisis. India participated in Geneva-II and has contributed financially towards humanitarian assistance and destruction of chemical weapons. We support the efforts of UN Special Envoy for Syria in the peaceful resolution of the conflict. We are also providing humanitarian and relief assistance to Syrians in distress.
- India has consistent policy on Israel-Palestine. India’s policy is that of extending strong support to the Palestinian cause, while maintaining good relations with Israel. India supports a comprehensive resolution of the Palestinian issue, leading to a sovereign, independent, viable and united State of Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital, living within secure and recognized borders, side by side at peace with Israel, as endorsed in the Quartet Roadmap and relevant UNSC Resolutions. We have called on both sides to resume the stalled peace process. In fact, Palestine was the first destination of EAM’s visit to the West Asia region, reflecting its importance in India’s engagement with the region. On his regional tour to Jordan, Palestine and Israel a few months back, Rashtrapatiji articulated India’s support for Palestine in all these countries. Apart from strong political support to the Palestinian cause at international, regional and bilateral levels, India has been contributing budgetary, economic and developmental assistance to Palestine.
- We have expressed our firm support to Iraq in its fight against international terrorism and efforts to preserve its unity and territorial integrity. We are hopeful that an inclusive political arrangement will help easing the conflict. In view of the security situation, the government has assisted over 7,000 Indians in returning from Iraq. However, the safety of the 39 Indian nationals in captivity remains a matter of foremost concern, and the government is making all efforts for their release.
- Despite UN led efforts to bring a political solution to the Libyan crisis, the conflict continues in a ‘civil war’ like situation, with intensified militia warfare between Islamists and pro-government forces in Tripoli, Benghazi and other parts of the country since July 2014. The government initiated a detailed assistance plan for the safe exit of the Indian nationals trapped in the conflict. So far, of the 6,500 Indians at the time of the commencement of the conflict, around 3,600 have been evacuated. The remaining Indians, despite persistent Embassy Advisories, have refused to leave for economic reasons. Recently, five Indians were detained by militia in Sirte. While the release of two of them was secured promptly, three still remain in captivity. The Government is making all efforts to secure their release and is in touch with various stakeholders.
- As for the external players, India believes that US, despite its pivot towards Asia-Pacific region, remains an important player for regional stability (i.e. fight against ISIS, security of Israel). Other countries have attempted to re-engage and may have gained in appeal as a counterweight to the West in the region. The Russian entry in Syria militarily, has boosted prospects of the Regime in Damascus and focussed on war against ISIS.
- India has welcomed the successful conclusion of negotiations on the Iranian nuclear issue called as Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as it addresses a contentious issue through peaceful negotiations and mutual agreement. The announcement of July 14 also underlines the success of diplomacy and dialogue, which India has always supported. We are optimistic that the agreement would be implemented in good faith and would lead to a permanent resolution of this long standing issue. Further, we underscore the important role of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in the agreement’s implementation and the rebuilding of international confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear activities.
- ISIS is a new type of virulent terrorist manifestation with global ramifications. India believes that the only solution to this threat can be through a larger political approach requiring a consolidated, rather than fragmented perspective, including intelligence sharing; counter-terrorism; cyber-space cooperation for containment of outbound flow of foreign fighters into Iraq and Syria; developing a legal framework for fighting terrorism at national and international level (including early adoption of the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism); tracking of financial flows; and humanitarian assistance. So far, the efforts of ISIS to gain recruits from India has met with limited success largely owing to our own pluralist society and inclusive democratic experience. There are reported to be a small number of Indian jihadi fighters in Iraqi-Syrian war zones, but the Government is taking measures to control this through immigration controls, intelligence sharing, and liaison with state Governments.
- In view of the situation in the region, new areas of defence and security cooperation have emerged which include counter-terrorism, intelligence sharing, piracy, money laundering, small arms smuggling, financing terror activities, etc. Specific measures for strengthening institutional security mechanisms can include: greater naval presence in the region; regular participation in Shared Awareness and Deconfliction (SHADE) meetings; stronger regional cooperation through naval assets in the Strait of Hormuz and Red Sea for protection of maritime trade.
- India believes that political instability can be offset through greater economic engagement with the region. Such linkages could bring together stakeholders with shared interests in preservation of peace. While India’s regional trade volumes have increased, considerable untapped potential remains.
- The Indian diaspora in the region has become the most preferred work force due to their hard working nature and sense of dedication and commitment. Their contribution in the development of their host countries has earned tremendous goodwill for India. It has also helped in furthering our bilateral relations with these countries.
- We remain committed to further our mutually beneficial political, economic and security ties with North African countries including Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco and Sudan. New areas of economic cooperation include pharmaceuticals, automobiles, infrastructure, power and renewable energy.
- We shall continue our cooperation with Somalia on anti-piracy and hostage issue. Importantly, the last of the remaining 7 Indian seafarers in captivity in Somalia were released in October 2014, after four years in captivity.
- We have laid out a strong foundation for our relationship collectively with the Arab League, through the signing of a Memorandum of Cooperation and an Executive Programme in December 2013, covering the fields of political consultations, trade and investments, media and culture. We are working for the 1st India-Arab League Ministerial Meeting in the coming days in Manama where the two sides would renew the Executive Programme for the year 2016-17 and also explore ways and means to strengthen our multifaceted relationship.
7. In conclusion, I would like to reiterate that India attaches high priority to its political, economic, and security relations with the countries of the West Asia region. I remain optimistic that our bilateral relations with the countries in West Asia are poised to grow, given the enormous potential on both sides. However, the broader context in which we seek to pursue our vital interests in West Asia is fraught and unpredictable making our task so much more challenging and daunting.
8. I look forward to hearing from the learned speakers on this pertinent topic and gain new insights on regional perspective.
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