Opinion and Editorial

Gulf security and India

Dr N Janardhan
Filed on January 12, 2007

WHILE the relationship between the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries and India are currently rooted in economic dynamics, it is not completely unrealistic to assume that the region would consider India as a more favoured partner if it is willing to address the Gulf’s security concerns as well.

The need for alternate strategies in the Gulf and the possibility of India playing a role in it arises due to the changing tide on both sides.

In the Gulf, the United States has failed to effectively deal with Iraq and Iran. As a result, two schools of thought prevail in the region: one urging less international involvement in the region and the other, more.

Those arguing that the way out of the dilemma is to withdraw external powers feel that international involvement has precipitated the crises. They feel that the Gulf has become too complacent to evolve indigenous mechanisms for conflict prevention and resolution, as well shied away from confidence-building measures with potential rivals.

But the situation on the ground is not conducive to the complete removal of external forces. Thus, the alternative is further internationalisation of the region. The dominant view is that "the United States is a spent force — not militarily or economically, but politically." As a result, the GCC countries are willing to consider intense political, economic and social ties with other countries to counter the prevailing notion that only (US) military power counts.

Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal told the Gulf Dialogue meeting in Bahrain in December 2004 that guarantees for Gulf security cannot be provided unilaterally "even by the only superpower in the world". The region requires guarantees "provided by the collective will of the international community."

The events leading to these and similar reactions in the region have forced the GCC countries to build ties with European and Asian countries. Some of these countries have one factor in common: they are "regional plus" powers; their political weight goes well beyond their geographical borders, though not as far as to give them a global reach or ambition. This gives them a perfect stake in developing a multi-polar world that can resist any single nation’s efforts to achieve dominance. While cultivating the new relationship, the region is linking its economic interests and security needs. And, apart from the importance of energy, Europe and Asia are linking the relevance of the Gulf region to transnational security issues such as proliferation of weapons, crime, drugs and terrorism, and their impact on their domestic scenarios.

On the other side, while energy security is a factor, India is now willing to showcase its power and influence in the region. This expanded security perspective is driven by necessity, ambition and opportunity. The desire to lead coincides with its rise as a major power with continental aspirations. Former premier Atal Behari Vajpayee and Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh urged looking beyond the immediate neighbourhood. "The Gulf region is a part of our natural economic hinterland," Singh said.

After Pakistan, China, Russia and the US, the Gulf is the focus to ensure against any maritime or landward threat to it from the region, serve as a base to pursue India’s interests, confront terrorism and extremism, as well as tap the investment potential. By focusing on the Gulf and restoring traditional linkages with the immediate and extended neighbourhood, India is seeking to address its "four deficits" in the historical, security, economic and global decision-making realms.

More importantly, India is now talking about "soft power" and diplomacy — the security of the Gulf countries, as well as the wider Middle East, is of "paramount concern" and New Delhi is ready to contribute to the stability of the region by sharing its experience in combating terrorism, maritime security and military training. India stresses that events in Iraq have brought home the fact that a politically unstable area can become the spawning ground of terrorists. According to India’s National Security Adviser MK Narayanan, "The key focus in our external relations today is ensuring the stability and security of the region, comprising the arc of nations from the Gulf to East Asia."

To achieve this, India’s military build-up began in 2001. On a visit to Washington, former external affairs minister Jaswant Singh said, "when we talk about Indonesia or central Asia or the Gulf, it is because of our interest and our sphere of influence.

In order to highlight its potential and achieve its objectives, the Indian military services are undertaking a major build-up of conventional arms, creating ways of delivering nuclear weapons and defending against them, planning construction of warships, enhancing military logistics in Central Asia and even negotiated with the US for an Asian version of Nato. All these come in the wake of India’s existing maritime security involvement involving Asian, African, European and Gulf countries (Oman), as well as Russia and the US. Further, the Indian Coast Guard and Navy have been active in anti-piracy, disaster relief, and environmental management and response operations, which was evident after the 2004 tsunami.

A key role in this programme is that of the Indian Navy, which aims not just to patrol the seas, but have the capacity to create and "deploy battalion-sized forces at various strategic points... [on] short notice, and disperse them quickly from the landing or dropping zone before any adequate enemy response". The inference is that the expansion programme envisions possible intervention in countries in India’s "sphere of influence".

According to a US War College study, "Whereas (India’s) earlier doctrine focused on inward-looking strategies, the new doctrine attempts to deal with conflict with (an) extra-regional power and protecting persons of Indian origin and interest abroad," which perhaps brings the Gulf on the radar screens again.

With India viewing the Gulf, South Asia and Central Asia as "strategically interactive and interrelated regions", it is time for the GCC to reciprocate in a commensurate way. Given the prevailing anti-West sentiment among Arabs, it could be the appropriate time for upgrading GCC-India ties beyond the economic realm.

A GCC-India relationship based purely on selling and buying of oil is untenable. The GCC countries need to take note of the fact that India’s basket of energy suppliers are widening. It is not entirely impossible that India may follow the United Sates, which gets more oil from Africa than the Middle East, or China which gets more crude supplies from Angola than Saudi Arabia.

However, in the process of moving forward, the real challenge is how to turn the Indian military strength into a factor of regional security. The dilemmas in the Gulf region could ease if the GCC countries and India evolve new ideas of collective security that go beyond the restrictive paradigms of the past. But by suggesting that it is willing to play a proactive role by sharing its experience in combating terrorism, maritime security and military training, New Delhi may also be indicating just how far it is willing to go, which, in fact, is not far enough for the long-term security concerns of the Gulf countries.

At the same time, the debate on India’s potential security role in the region has to address many questions about the wisdom of cooperating beyond soft security, its effectiveness in a wider role, public opinion on both sides and the reaction of the United States.

Dr N Janardhan is the Program Manager of Gulf-Asia Relations and the Editor of Gulf in the Media at the Gulf Research Center, Dubai

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