Mixed USA and India flag, three dimensional render, illustration: iStock
Mixed USA and India flag, three dimensional render, illustration: iStock

India has been quite neutral regarding the issues and conflicts of this region. In the early part of the last century, Britain offered the US the spoils of the defunct Ottomon Empire in the region but Washington refused. This region is a huge source of oil resources and could meet the energy requirements of any country. It was during World War II that American troops landed in Iran to help the USSR and to protect Iranian oil. After that, the US engaged with the region in a very complex way and that continues even today.

The US always wants a balance of power in that region that serves the American interest. The US maintains its relations with Saudi Arabia and other partners and cultivates a special rapport with Israel. Traditionally neutral India has been engaged with the Near East only in terms of exporting labour and importing oil. During the Cold War, the USSR intervened directly in the region and due to its non-alignment credentials and the cooperative understanding between the USSR and India, the country was never particularly vocal in this region. However; it suited India because it has a large Muslim population and Pakistan enjoyed a rapport with the countries of the region. In 1969, due to Pakistani diplomatic pressure, India was forced to stay out of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference. But now with the emergence of multipolarity in the region, India is beginning to think and act more strategically here for its national interest. China has been less judgmental and it has increased its economic connections to the countries of the region, so India now has a more active role.

India also cannot ignore the security of the Arabian Sea and the access to the Red Sea for maintaining free trade routes. India also has to retain its energy requirements as it is a fast-growing country. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Link West Policy,” which has become the ‘Think West Policy,” proves that India is now acting in a more engaged way than ever. Modi has visited the UAE, which was the first visit by a prime minister of India in the last 34 years, and this visit was reciprocated.

India has developed an understanding over security and defense mechanisms with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Oman and Qatar. Modi has broken the ice with Israel and made a first-ever visit of an Indian prime minister to Israel in June 2017 and has successfully advanced the partnership even further. This also suits the US and Israel as under US pressure, Israel was forced to stop arms sales to China, and India is now the main buyer. Now, in line with the US, India is essentially assisting in creating a balance of power in the region against China, Russia and Pakistan’s possible matrix in the region.

India in South and Central Asia

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In South Asia, India is in a position to play a dominant role not only on the land but also in the sky and sea. But a closer look at India’s neighbourhood proves that India is not that successful in its own region.

The state of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) also indicates that this region is quite disintegrated. As India is the only country that connects the borders of each and every country of South Asia, this situation is quite grim. Modi began his stint by inviting all leaders of the region to his oath-taking ceremony.

Leaders came and went but their relations with India failed to progress. After the Uri and Pathankot attacks, India launched surgical strikes in parts of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Pakistan has been happy to be part of China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative and with occupied Kashmir, it is. also constructing the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

In this changing and challenging scenario, Russia has supplied arms to Pakistan; this makes India’s worries more serious than ever before. India is feeling somewhat compelled to engage more with the US in the region. In recent times, the US has emphasized the need for greater participation from Japan and India in the region, and Japan has responded positively. It has not only joined Exercise Malabar in the Indian Ocean with the US and India but also redesigned its defense and military policy.

The growing relationship between Russia, Pakistan, China and North Korea in the region can easily be counterbalanced with a combination of the US, Japan, South Korea, India and Australia. It does not mean the US is going to break relations with Pakistan and vice versa, because Pakistan needs the US outside the region, and the US would not want lose leverage in the Near East by losing access via Pakistan. Also, the US needs Pakistan to do a bargain with India. India understands this and is trying hard to strengthen its relations with neighbouring countries, but nothing is happening in a concrete way.

With Nepal, India is consciously moving forward, but with the advent of China-Nepal friendship highways, it is not that easy. Modi has started with a very positive development, executing a land boundary agreement with Bangladesh, but the recent Rohingya problem has exposed the Indo-Bangladesh faultlines and also India’s limited ability to exert pressure on Myanmar, as the country is the pillar state in India’s Act East Policy.

India and Bhutan enjoy a very special relationship, having an open border system. The recent Doklam dispute with China proves that this bonding is sturdy and comprehensive with prospective elements. India also is confident about its relationship with the eighth entrant partner of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation – Afghanistan. India has invested heavily in development activities in the country and understands the significance of its affinity with Kabul. The US wants even more engagement by India, primarily Indian military boots on Afghani soil, but so far India has expressed no willingness.

The relationship of Modi’s India with Sri Lanka and Maldives is not of prime importance, at least nothing substantial is visible. China has invested heavily in the deep sea port of Chittagong in Bangladesh, Hambantota port in Sri Lanka and Gwadar port in  Pakistan. and it often refers to them as a “string of pearls.” In view of these developments, India is also willing to play an active role in the South China Sea and strategically invested in Chabahar Port in Iran to serve its security and economic needs. Modi’s Indian Ocean tour in March 2015 definitely deserves a mention. Modi visited Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka, in order to fulfil its Net Security Provider pledge.

Modi understands the significance of Central Asia as it connects Europe to Asia, and he popularized his Connect Central Asia Policy with his activism. Though this term was coined by E Ahmed, the state external affairs minister of the country under the Manmohan Singh government, while he was participating in the First Track II Meeting of India-Central Asia Dialogue, often considered  the response to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Modi tried to push the notion even further.

Central Asia is a resource-rich region. Here, the presence of Russia is sizable, especially in the security context, and America tries to penetrate it through Afghanistan. Connecting Central Asia is inevitable for India because Pakistan has blocked the direct contact of India with the region through its occupation in Kashmir and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Modi toured Central Asia in July 2015 and has become the first leader since Jawaharlal Nehru to visit five countries in one go, and India has found a way to cope with its poor connectivity.

Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan recently inaugurated a railway line connecting the two countries with Iran. Now, with the development of Chabahar port, India automatically gets access. For the countries of Central Asia, a security net is important as they are on “Arc of Instability,” which consists of the troubled areas of Chechanya, Ferghana and Xinjiang. China and Russia benefit the most from involvement in the region, and India has not yet exploited the natural goodwill it enjoys here.

Uzbek Radio has just completed 55 years of Hindi broadcasting. Modi offered assistance with the election processes of the only democratic country of the region – Kyrgyzstan – through its Election Commission. Modi offered his support in IT, pharmaceuticals and tourism to all the four nations he visited. He inked a uranium supply agreement with Kazakhstan, the largest exporter of the element in the world, a security deal to fight the Taliban with Tajikistan, which has the longest border with Afghanistan, and made progress with Turkmenistan on the TAPI project to meet its energy needs.

India in the Western Hemisphere 

In 1823, US president James Monroe propounded a doctrine focusing on keeping the American continent safe from European imperialism. This famous Monroe Doctrine put the US in a strong position in the Western Hemisphere. The US has treated the Western Hemisphere with the utmost care compared to other parts of the world. With Canada and Mexico, it has managed to build a cooperative partnership along with a robust border management mechanism.

Barring the US, Canada and Brazil, India has been aloof regarding the affairs of the Western hemisphere. But now India understands that this region is important collectively. It is also essential for maritime security and trade through the Atlantic Ocean. In April 2015, Modi visited Canada and secured a comprehensive understanding regarding bilateral business partnerships. In June 2016, Modi visited Mexico and along with business talks, both countries exchanged their concerns over the Nuclear Suppliers Group and other security challenges in the world system. In July 2014, to participate in the BRICS summit, Modi visited Brazil and had a fruitful talk with the country’s leaders.

This analysis proves that Modi has responded to contemporary challenges worldwide quite well, though his efforts are misplaced even in his own region. In the waters, he has handled the affairs well but seems to have failed on the land. He has taken pre-emptive measures, broken the ice here and there and sent the bold message that India is now ready to take its global responsibilities seriously. While India’s foreign policy is well aligned with US  global policies, it is actually struggling in its own region, and its relationship with the US is not always helpful, especially in South Asia.

India only can benefit from the series of confidence-building measures (CBMs) and mechanisms of bilateralism and multilateralism toward neighbouring countries. India now needs to be active in its own region, which also requires a policy like Act East. Without that India will be lacking in bargaining power even with the US. India should maintain its relationship with the US but also must explore diplomatic alternatives that could be fruitful and generally increase its bargaining power. India has successfully placed its diplomatic investments worldwide under the American Imperium and this imperium so far brings a world order that serves the national interests of India.

Dr Shreesh Pathak

Dr Shreesh Pathak holds an MPhil and a PhD from the Centre for South Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. He heads the Department of Political Science at Galgotias University in Greater Noida, Uttar Pradesh.

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