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Sushma’s Tryst With W Asia: BALANCING WITH TWIN VISITS, By Amrita Banerjee, 21 Jan, 2016 Print E-mail

Round The World

New Delhi, 21 January 2016

Sushma’s Tryst With W Asia


By Amrita Banerjee

(School of International Studies, JNU, New Delhi)


There is today no region which impinges on India’s security with as much immediacy as West Asia. In this regard, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s first-ever two-day tour to Israel and Palestine becomes important. This high-level visit comes just three months after President Pranab Mukherjee’s historic visit. Swaraj’s presence in Israel is of special significance in light of  Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s proposed visit to India later this year, as well as for  Narendra Modi’s much anticipated visit to the West Asian nation.


For centuries, West Asia has been India’s extended neighbourhood, which is not only home to seven million Indians but is also crucial for India’s energy security (about 60%), resources, remittances, and national security. It is also a factor in our food security as a major source of phosphate and other fertilizers. Major maritime lines of trade and energy routes intersect in this region infested with extremism. For all the above reasons, New Delhi’s interest lies in a peaceful and balanced strategic environment in West Asia. Thus, rekindling India-West Asia’s truly historical, cultural, linguistic, religious and civilization linkages comes as no surprise.


India too is significant for West Asia, as its political engagement with the region encourages the latter to seek solution towards its conflicts and differences through dialogue and peaceful means. New Delhi’s support for peace in the region has been principled and consistent. In fact, India was the first non-Arab country to recognize the state of Palestine. Secondly, Indian opposition to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the region has stabilized this area to a great extent. For instance, it has recognized Iran’s right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy while urging the international community to engage with Tehran through dialogue and by using the IAEA’s expertise.


Thirdly, India’s anti-piracy efforts off the Horn of Africa to protect the vital sea-lanes have been applauded. Fourthly, India’s defence cooperation and effective partnerships within the countries of this region have helped them to stem the tide of terrorism and extremism. And lastly, India has stressed on building energy security through long term arrangements and mutual investments and linkages.


Even though this region is of prime importance to India, a gradual abandonment of West Asia in its foreign policy lexicon was noticed in the aftermath of the end of the cold war. It was during the post-cold war era when India started inching towards US-led-world system and forged a close strategic alliance for variety of strategic and political reasons with Israel which was “not-the-priority” earlier. The estrangement with the region further deepened in the post 9/11 era when India chose to remain silent on the matters related to West Asia. This change was very prominently noticed by New Delhi during the two tenures of the UPA government.


On matters of conflict in Syria, Libya and Iraq, India preferably remained on the sideline and at best chose to be the emulator of China and Russia rather than the competitor. On Syria, India’s stance kept on oscillating between voting with the US and the EU in the UN and opposing them when they insisted on the removal of President Bashar al Assad. In case of Libya, India initially went along with Russia and China to abstain on the UN vote invoking the Right to Protect but later remained silent against the US and the EU when they turned the UN mandate into an order for removal of Col. Muammar Qadhafi of Libya.


Following the ‘Arab Spring’, this region has undergone an intense phase of political instability and radicalization coupled with the rise of sectarian and ethnic politics, regional rivalry and subsequent mushrooming of religious fanatic organizations and terrorism. The ascendancy of tribal politics in Yemen and Libya, sectarian divide and bloodshed in Syria and Iraq, the humanitarian refugee crisis and the recent arrest and execution of a Shia Sheikh has created diplomatic tension between Shia and Sunni governments of Iran and Saudi Arabia respectively.


The contextual evolution and subsequent reinforcement of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has become another source of disquiet and worry, posing an imminent threat to global peace and security. The ISIS as an ideology has the potential to distract bulk of youth from across the world and India is not immune to it, with reports that a few Indian Muslim youth have left the country to join the group. The changed international security situation in West Asia has thus raised significant questions about India’s security too.


The other question that has been raised is India’s possible closeness with Israel viz-a-viz Palestine. Many of the region’s countries, which swear by the Palestinian cause, had indicated unhappiness when India abstained from a UN vote critical of Israel last year. The reaction to the public bonhomie Modi had demonstrated with Netanyahu, whom he called a ‘friend’ on Twitter has also created a buzz. However, these apprehensions are not true. In fact, India has exercised extreme caution in trying to correct the perception that ties with Israel would come at the cost of relations with Palestine.


It is true that ever since India established full diplomatic ties with Israel in 1992, their relationship has come a long way. From tight-lipped defence cooperation, their relations have blossomed into a multifaceted partnership, ranging from water technology and agriculture to cancer treatment and space research. In recent years, interest has been noticed in the field of private sector investments, academic research and higher education and start-up ecosystem.


Similarities in political systems, victim of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism, Israel’s aid during Kargil, her sympathy for India on Kashmir question, booming technology in both countries have brought them closer considerably. Simultaneously, India is executing several projects in Palestine to improve the living conditions of the people, actively building capacity by extending scholarships to its students and also building schools. India today has signaled its willingness to take on a ‘larger role’ under a proposed UN mandate to help resolve the conflict. Thus, India is deftly balancing its fragile relationship with the two countries.


This region today is full of challenges and India as a vital power and an economic giant cannot afford to be a mute observer. There are few long and short term policy options which New Delhi can use effectively. The long term options include- Prioritizing the Region, understanding the political efficacy of contemporary world politics, promoting soft power, fostering counter terrorism cooperation, recognizing contestation for the regional leadership, committing to a balanced and pragmatic approach between Israel and the other nations of the region and moving towards creating conducive entrepreneurial environment.


New Delhi’s short term requirements would be fighting the ISIS menace, managing the Big Powers and also talking to both the regional powers. Despite the Hindutva credentials of the present government, Modi through his ‘Link West’ policy is keen to break the conventional dichotomy of Arab-India relations and Israel-India relations and the several high level visits in the recent past is oriented towards this end.--INFA


(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)

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