The sprouting of the ‘Look West’ policy


BY SANJAYA BARU, August 19 – Narendra Modi’s ‘Look West’ Policy, unveiled in the India-UAE Joint statement, will succeed because West Asia is ‘looking East’ worried about the emerging strategic instability in its own neighbourhood and the structural shift in the global energy market

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) this week has the potential to be remembered like Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao’s visit to Singapore in September 1994. Through his famous Singapore Lecture, Narasimha Rao unveiled India’s “Look East” Policy. Through the joint statement that he signed with UAE’s leadership, Mr. Modi has unveiled India’s“Look West” Policy.

Narasimha Rao’s “Look East” Policy succeeded because South-East Asia began to “look West” to India, seeking a balancer to China. Mr. Modi’s “Look West” Policy will succeed because West Asia is “looking East” worried about the emerging strategic instability in its own neighbourhood and the structural shift in the global energy market.

Nuanced view of the region

The foundation for Mr. Modi’s successful outreach to West Asia was in fact laid by his predecessor when India invited the King of Saudi Arabia to be the chief guest at the Republic Day Parade, in 2006. This was followed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Riyadh and the India-Saudi defence cooperation agreement signed in 2014. Growing India-Saudi cooperation in the field of terrorism may have also contributed to India’s relatively mild response to Saudi aggression in Yemen, but it did set the stage for wider engagement at a strategic level with the other states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

Mr. Modi’s visit to the UAE was preceded by significant visits to other GCC states by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj. That Ms. Swaraj made Bahrain her first stop in the region, last September, was welcomed by Bahrain’s India-friendly leadership and showed growing sophistication in Indian thinking about the region. With a minority Sunni leadership and a majority Shia population, Bahrain has tried hard not to get drawn into the wider sectarian conflicts in West Asia. Moreover, with half of the island kingdom’s working population hailing from India, mostly Kerala, and given the very cordial people-to-people relations between Bahrainis and Indians, the visit showed that India had a special relationship to the region that few other major powers can ever lay claim to. Finally, over the last year, the Modi government has put forward a nuanced view of the region openly declaring friendship with Israel, seeking better relations with Iran and, at the same time, cementing a thriving relationship with the GCC states. It is expected that Mr. Modi may follow up his successful visit to the UAE with a productive visit to Iran and a “historic” one to Israel, being the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Tel Aviv.

Transformational visit

While all this fits into a pattern, one should not underestimate the transformational significance of the UAE visit and the Dubai declaration. The Joint Statement between the United Arab Emirates and India is an important articulation of a significant shift in the Arab world’s view of India. The statement is truly comprehensive and wide-ranging. It talks of historic ties of “commerce, culture and kinship”, drawing attention to the unique history of Arab interaction with Indian communities of the west coast, from Gujarat to Kerala.

The joint statement, outlining closer government-to-government (G2G) relations, draws attention to the vibrant business-to-business (B2B) and people-to-people (P2P) relationships and commits the UAE to a sharp increase in its investment in India. What is striking to an observer of India-West Asia relations is the assertion of not just a “shared” past but of shared challenges in the present and a shared future. It then proceeds to state: “A shared endeavour to address these challenges, based on common ideals and convergent interests, is vital for the future of the two countries and their region.” The statement expresses the hope that: “Proximity, history, cultural affinity, strong links between people, natural synergies, shared aspirations and common challenges create boundless potential for a natural strategic partnership between India and UAE.”

That these are not just words but the expression of new thinking in both capitals is demonstrated both by the visuals of the visit and the follow-up action both governments have committed themselves to. More to the point, it makes pointed reference to the growing congruence of thinking on vital security issues, especially cross-border terrorism.

Domestic dimension

It is in the nature of things that any visit of an Indian Prime Minister to a Muslim nation has a domestic resonance. Every Prime Minister has been aware of this. Often, even the timing of visits to Muslim nations is defined by the domestic political calendar. So it would be part of a pattern if Mr. Modi had, among other things, the elections in Bihar and even Kerala on mind when he visited the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi and spoke eloquently of the Arab world’s rich cultural traditions and friendship towards India. His address in Dubai was aimed at not just an Indian audience but a wider Southern Asian audience and, of course, the global audience of diplomats and strategic policy analysts. The Prime Minister made it clear that he did have the audience in Pakistan in mind when he spoke about working together with the UAE in fighting terrorism.

Mr. Modi and his political managers should be satisfied that the Prime Minister’s visits to the capitals of neighbouring Muslim nations — Bangladesh and the UAE — and to the Central Asian republics went well. That all of this may have been planned with the domestic political audience in mind is to be expected, given the history of India’s relations with the Islamic world. It remains to be seen how much and how lasting an impact all of this would have on domestic politics.

GCC looks West

What is significant about the new strategic partnership outlined by the UAE and India is the fact that it is defined not just by India’s “Look West” policy, based on its energy and financial needs, but that it is equally defined by the GCC’s “Look East” policy, soliciting greater Indian engagement with West Asia. Several factors have contributed to this fundamental shift in West Asian strategic thinking.

First, the structural change in the global energy market with West Asian oil and gas increasingly heading to South and East Asian markets rather than to the Trans-Atlantic markets. Second, partly as a consequence of this change in flows and partly owing to the fiscal stress faced by the trans-Atlantic economies, West Asia is looking to India and other Asian powers to step in and offer security guarantees to the region. Many GCC states have welcomed defence cooperation agreements with India. Third, in the wake of the Arab Spring and the mess in Egypt and Iraq, the Gulf states find India and China to be more reliable interlocutors than many western states. Fourth, under pressure from radical and extremist political forces within West Asia, most states in the region have come to value the Indian principle of seeking and securing regional stability as an over-riding principle of regional security.

In the specific case of India-UAE relations, it appears the Emirati have come to appreciate India’s view that state-sponsored or supported cross-border terrorism poses a grave threat to regional security and so must be curtailed and stopped. Mr. Modi’s bold public statements on terrorism could not have been made in Dubai if they did not have the implicit endorsement of his hosts.

In short, it would seem, the India-UAE strategic engagement is the product of a mutual “look-at-each-other” policy. If China’s rise offered the backdrop for South-East Asia’s “look at India” policy, the West’s failures and weaknesses, and a weakening of the strategic trust between the West and West Asia may have contributed to the GCC’s “look at India” policy.

Regional non-alignment

While the Dubai joint statement underscores the special nature of the India-UAE relationship, based on converging P2P, B2B and G2G relations, it is increasingly clear that India’s own policy towards the region will be shaped by its policy of non-alignment in the context of the region’s religious (Muslims and Jews) and sectarian (Shia-Sunni) conflicts. The UAE’s endorsement of terms like “multiculturalism” and “religious pluralism” in the joint statement suggests that the Emirati leadership values India’s own approach to these principles and views this approach as best suited to the region’s own governance systems.

Stepping away from religious extremism and accepting pluralism and multi-culturalism as the defining principles of a modern state is the only way forward for each of the countries of Asia — from West to East. India’s appeal to Asia as a whole is built on these foundational principles of its Constitution.

Sanjaya Baru is Director for Geo-economics and Strategy, International Institute of Strategic Studies, and Honorary Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.) This article has been published in The Hindu on 19 August 2015. 


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