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India’s Turn to Mini-lateralism in West Asian Context

Dr Deepika Saraswat is an Associate Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • July 21, 2023

    On 7 May 2023, India's National Security Advisor Ajit Doval participated in a meeting with his counterparts from the US, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia in Riyadh.1 A White House readout of the meeting noted that the purpose was to advance their shared vision of a more secure and prosperous Middle East region interconnected with India and the world. Earlier, in October 2021, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar during his visit to Israel had participated in a quadrilateral meeting with the Foreign Ministers of Israel, the US and the UAE, focussing on closer economic cooperation in infrastructure, energy and food security.2 Since then, the grouping has come to be known as the I2U2.

    Over the last two years, India’s participation in mini-lateral frameworks together with the US and its West Asian allies has been a transformative development in its West Asia policy.

    US mini-lateral turn in West Asia

    Mini-laterals, where small number of states with better understanding of each other’s needs and strengths, collaborate to find practical solutions to their shared challenges first and foremost emerge from strong bilateral partnerships and convergences between states.3 I2U2 therefore, culminated from India’s deepening strategic partnerships with the UAE, the US, and Israel.

    Secondly, the US-brokered 2020 Abraham Accords, which normalised ties between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain and several other Arab countries, opened the space for US-led regional initiatives with participation from Israel. To allay fears among its regional allies about the US disengagement from the region, the Biden administration has prioritised fostering greater regional cooperation, and integration of its “unrivaled network of allies and partners” from Middle East and Indo-Pacific. The US National Security Strategy 2022 noted that it was time for the United States “to eschew grand designs in favor of more practical steps that can advance U.S. interests and help regional partners lay the foundation for greater stability, prosperity for the people of the Middle East and for the American people”.4

    In doing so, the US has sought to recalibrate its traditional role as the external security guarantor through bilateral alliances to that of an ‘integrator’ of regional mechanism that will act as bulwark against domination of the region by rival powers like China and Russia. This strategy is visible in the post-Accords US-backed regional mini-lateral/multilateral initiatives involving Israel such as the Negev Summit (March 2022), the East Mediterranean Gas Forum, and the I2U2.

    I2U2: A trade and technology cooperation initiative

    Over the last two years, the I2U2 has emerged as a Trade and technology cooperation initiative leveraging relative strengths and trade synergies between the four countries, namely the UAE’s capital, Israel’s technological prowess, India’s market-size and production capacity. At the first I2U2 virtual summit during US President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel in July 2022, consensus was reached on advancing joint investments and initiatives encompassing the six areas of energy, food security, health, space, transportation and water.5 Three of these areas, namely energy, food security, and water, can be bracketed under technology-energy-climate change nexus, where India has been cooperating with the UAE and Israel on a bilateral basis.

    In 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic further drove home the importance of resilient supply-chains for food security, under the India–UAE Food Corridor, major companies such as Dubai-based Emaar group, DP World and other private sector players committed investments up to US$ 7 billion over next three years in integrated mega food parks, related warehousing and logistics infrastructure, in various Indian cities.6

    Israel, which has established itself as a leader in climate tech, has been cooperating with India in tackling climate-change related challenges to food security and agriculture. The Indo-Israel Agricultural Cooperation Project, which was started in 2008, has been a success story, with 30 ‘Centres of Excellence’ jointly established across India disseminating best agricultural practices, and capacity building through professional training programmes.7

    To build on these synergies, following the I2U2 Summit, the UAE pledged to invest US$ 2 billion to develop a series of integrated food parks across India, with the involvement of US and Israeli private sector to lend their expertise and innovative solutions to contribute to the overall sustainability of the project. The second joint project announced at the I2U2 summit was a US$ 300 million hybrid renewable energy project (300 MW of wind and solar capacity) in Gujarat. Subsequently, a joint business coalition of the I2U2 was established in April 2023, to mobilise private sector capital and expertise for joint projects in sustainable and renewable energy, areas where the UAE is focussing in the run-up to hosting of the COP-28.8

    India–US Convergence in West Asia

    What is noteworthy about these ‘mini-laterals’ is that they are issue-specific in nature. They are not to be confused with alliances, which entail enduring security commitment between allies, and usually have a broader remit including economic, technological, and diplomatic components. Delhi’s participation in these quadrilaterals underscores India–US regional convergence in West Asia based on their shared vision of an ‘interconnected’ or networked region.

    Given that small regional states like the UAE and Israel, who are determined to simultaneously deepen ties with constellation of powers such as the US, China, India, and Russia, mini-laterals are flexible and informal mechanisms and do not entail significant political costs, while at the same time strengthening their ability to manoeuvre great power competition.9 Mini-laterals such as I2U2 serve to strengthen the capabilities of regional states in dealing with shared challenges. At the same time, as a regional mechanism, they can limit the potential hegemonic designs of great powers making inroads into the region.

    Further, India’s participation in I2U2 framework alongside Israel indicates that New Delhi has not only de-hyphenated its bilateral ties with Israel and Palestine, but is playing a crucial role in integrating Israel with the region on mutually beneficial terms. From Israel's point of view, to make this de-hyphenation permanent, it seeks to deepen and broaden the ties across the board so that the relationship with Israel will become so widely accepted and beneficial that it remains unaffected through the change of government in New Delhi, just as is the case in Washington.10

    The issue-specific, and flexible nature of ‘mini-laterals’ also implies that countries can align with different sets of countries on different issues. Therefore, for India, participation in these frameworks is unlikely to impinge on its traditionally balanced approach towards the region. In Riyadh, Doval discussed with Saudi Arabia and the UAE about a railway network among Gulf States which will be linked to an Indian port in the Arabian Sea and Israeli port on the Mediterranean, namely the India-Arab- Mediterranean corridor.

    A week before that, Doval had visited Tehran to hold consultations with top Iranian officials, including President Ebrahim Raisi. Their talks focussed on the situation in Afghanistan, the possibilities for reviving trade ties by activating the rial-rupee mechanism, and cooperation in Chabahar port, which is being jointly developed by India and Iran as a key transit hub between the Persian Gulf and Central Asia.

    As India finds common ground with the US in advancing a regional approach for addressing shared development challenges, it will continue to maintain its independent strategic vision of its extended neighbourhood in West Asia.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.