Tag Archives: Seminar

India and the Middle East

At Foreign Affairs, I have a short piece of analysis looking at whether India is likely to engage more intensively with the Middle East:

The fate of the Middle East, home to roughly seven million Indians, has long been tied to that of India. As Salman Khurshid, then India’s foreign minister, noted in 2013, the Persian Gulf, which supplies two-thirds of India’s oil and gas, is the country’s largest trading partner — more important than the 28 countries of the European Union combined. Despite its stake in the region, however, India has remained passive in the face of crises. It appears wary of taking on a more assertive diplomatic or military role — more likely to evacuate citizens than send more in to grapple with the Middle East’s problems.

This is based on a slightly longer piece written last year for India’s Seminar magazine:

[T]he challenge for Indian policy is to demonstrate the flexibility to protect and advance Indian interests even as fixed, fast-frozen assumptions melt away. One challenge lies in carefully assessing the fragility of the status quo, rather than simply the risk of changes away from it. To the extent that India seeks an inclusive Syrian peace, its alignment with Russian and Iranian policy has yielded few results. In Egypt, too, Indian analysts under-estimate the long-term problems that the post-Brotherhood junta is generating. Here, the Afghan analogy again misleads: Indian policymakers are prone to exaggerating the foreign origins of protest movements or rebellions, thereby underestimating the indigenous forces at work. Even as India expands defence agreements with the Arab monarchies, it should ensure that it engages with the beleaguered opposition under the surface.

A second challenge is institutional. As C. Raja Mohan has noted, India’s Ministry of External Affairs places Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan into one division, the Arab countries into a second, and the rest of the Middle East and North Africa into a third.16 But even if such things were reformed, it is harder to see what a coherent Look West policy would entail. India’s engagement with East Asia in the two decades between 1992 and 2012 proceeded along relatively fixed, predictable lines (first economic, then defence) and involved stable regimes. But in the Middle East, alignments and polities themselves are proving more fluid. In this environment, a diverse alliance portfolio, encompassing traditional power centres but also new, influential, and even unsavoury actors within states – for example, Islamist groups, protest movements, armed factions, and other extra-regional powers – is required.

And whereas to look East was to look, in the final instance, at China, Indian policymakers looking to the West will find no single focal point, positive or negative. What is important is that India be nimble in exploiting opportunities, as it has been in East Asia in the past few years, eclectic in its partners, and resilient in the face of regional turbulence of the greatest magnitude since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

On this subject, see also: Dhruva Jaishankar, Alyssa Ayres, Raja Mohan, and Martin Indyk.

The Hindu Kush have ceased to exist

In January, Seminar magazine, an always-interesting Indian monthly, published a retrospective on 2011. Two essays – by C. Raja Mohan, and Srinath Raghavan – stood out. Both looked at Indian’s foreign, security and economic policies in the subcontinent.

In Modernizing the Raj Legacy, C. Raja Mohan wrote on the continuity between the strategic principles of British and independent India:

First, an ‘Inner Line’ delineated the limits of fully administered sovereignty of the Raj. (Embedded within it were the barely sovereign princely states). Second, beyond the Inner Line, the Raj drew an Outer Line [including FATA and] Arunachal Pradesh … At a third level, the Raj constructed a system of protectorates and buffer states that were formally sovereign but bound to the Raj in a treaty system in a manner that excluded the influence of Britain’s rival great powers from Europe.

Nehru’s adoption of this framework:

The much touted ‘Nehruvian’ foreign policy did not shirk the Raj legacy … The first four treaties that independent India entered into were with Bhutan, Sikkim, Nepal and Afghanistan. The first three agreements were variants of the Raj treaties with these states in the 19th century. As China entered Tibet, Nehru moved quickly to consolidate the traditional security arrangements with the three Himalayan kingdoms … Nehru found no contradiction between his high minded idealism at the global level and pragmatic realism at the regional level.

India’s influence in its near abroad naturally waned during the Cold War because of India’s economic isolation and China’s rising influence, but

[i]n the intervening decades, India did indeed affirm the Raj legacy. Indira Gandhi liberated Bangladesh [in 1971], integrated Sikkim [in 1975], and proclaimed the so-called Indira doctrine of India’s regional primacy. In the 1980s, Rajiv Gandhi sought to discipline the King of Nepal – who was flirting with China – by ordering a trade blockade, used force to secure the Maldives against a coup [in 1988], and inserted the Indian military into Sri Lanka [during 1987-1990] in order to keep peace between Tamils and the Sinhalese

Now, to C. Raja Mohan’s approval, Manmohan Singh is deepening and widening the so-called Gujral doctrine:

Taken together, Delhi’s recent agreements for partnership with Bhutan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Maldives mark a significant effort to reconstitute India’s neighbourhood policy. Unlike in the recent past, India is not claiming primacy in the region as a divine right. Instead, it is offering genuine partnerships to its neighbours premised on sovereign equality and mutual benefit. In doing so India is modernizing the Raj legacy and making it relevant to our time

Srinath Raghavan, in another excellent essay, explains that ‘the open doors of South Asia turned on two hinges: Afghanistan in the West and Burma in the East’, both of which swung shut after independence:

South Asia is amongst the least integrated regions of the world. Official intra-regional trade, to take but one indicator, hovers around 5% of total trade of the countries of the region. This is abysmally low not just in comparison to other regions of Asia (the corresponding figure for East Asia is over 50%), but also when contrasted with its own potential for growth through trade. South Asia has three attributes that make it extremely well-suited for integration by trade: the highest population density in the world, linguistic and ethnic overlap across borders, and the presence of a large number of cities close to the borders.

Raghavan concludes that

[t]he time, then, may be propitious not only to press ahead towards economic integration within South Asia, but also to try and weld the subcontinent with South East Asia, and possibly West Asia … it is clear that India needs to get its act together.

Finally, Kanti Bajpai has an essay on Sino-Indian relations. It’s less historically-textured, but collects some useful figures:

The energy picture also suggests that India and China could come into conflict. Global energy needs will rise by 50% by 2030, half of it from India and China. China is already the world’s largest energy consumer. Per capita energy use in India will grow by 56-67% and in China by 60-67%. Oil accounts for about 25% of India’s total energy use. This will rise to 35% in 2030. Over 60% of India’s oil comes from the Gulf, Iran, and other Middle Eastern sources. India’s reliance on coal is 42% of its total energy use. Its shortfall of coal is likely to be 100 million metric tons by 2012. Oil accounts for roughly 20% of China’s total energy use. This is expected to rise to 24% in 2030. Its reliance on coal is nearly 70% of its total energy use. Demand for coal in China is growing rapidly and will be six billion tons in 2025. Natural gas use will also increase substantially in both cases.

 These writings reminded me of an interesting essay by A.G. Noorani in Frontline (another Indian magazine) a few years ago, in which he reviewed The Future of The Great Game: Sir Olaf Caroe, India’s Independence, and the Defense of Asia:

In a major paper dated April 26, 1942, [the British colonial administrator Olaf Caroe] wrote that “a realisation is needed in the highest places that India cannot build a constitution unless the frontiers are held and the ring fence in some manner kept standing”. It was entitled “Whither India’s Foreign Policy”. Two others he wrote bear mention. They are “Some Constitutional Reflections on the Landward Security of the India of the Future” (August 18, 1944) and “The Essential Interests of the British Commonwealth in the Persian Gulf and its Coastal States, with special reference to India” (1944).

Caroe’s ideas may be showing up in Mohan’s work, but what’s interesting is that Caroe’s colleagues (and, today, Noorani) did not agree:

Brobst takes the reader through Caroe’s theories on “India’s Outer Ring”, the Buffer System, much of which became irrelevant after Independence. Guy Wint was much more realistic than Caroe. Advances in military technology and the rise in air power had undermined the traditional role of the buffer states. He wrote on June 7, 1943, a paper entitled “Some Problems of India’s Security”, in which he pointed out that just “as Louis XIV, when his grandson ascended the throne of Spain, remarked that the Pyranees had ceased to exist, so today have the Hindu Kush virtually ceased”.

The irony is that Pakistan is, for India, a quite serious buffer against the northwest – just not in a way that seems especially desirable in light of the pathologies of the regional economic architecture described by Srinath Raghavan.