GRM 2010 GRM 2011

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The evolution of India’s ‘strategic autonomy’ policy in the Gulf context
Paper Proposal Text :
The post-Cold War period has seen India’s strategic horizons moving beyond its traditional preoccupations in South Asia. The Gulf States have become an important focus of India’s foreign policy. Strategic issues have replaced the moral support to the Palestinian cause as India’s regional priority. Indeed, while economics and energy have driven the intensification of relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) since the 1980s, these have recently begun to take on a broader political and security dimension. Issues of energy security as well as maritime security and counter-terrorism are the main parameters explaining the creation of new strategic linkages between India and the GCC. An important step in this direction was taken with the signing of the strategic partnership between India and Saudi Arabia in 2010. However, this strategic rapprochement between India and the GGC states might appear as a contradiction to its prominent partnership with Israel on the one hand, and Iran on the other. These issues thus raise important questions about the future of India’s balanced strategic relations with West Asian countries.
This article will first give a comprehensive assessment of energy and defence cooperation between India and the GCC states since the end of the Cold War, and show that they are likely to become important strategic partners to India. In order to provide a perspective into how relations may develop over the medium to long term, the paper will then analyse the domestic, regional and international constraints on India’s policy in West Asia.
At the domestic level, India’s engagement with West Asia illustrates deep changes in the Indian strategic thinking. Political, economic and military elites have indeed played a key role in the adoption of a pragmatic and power-seeking foreign policy. The promotion of its ‘strategic autonomy’, through the establishment of security partnerships with various countries, has become one of the most important aspects of India’s foreign policy. However, the recent polemics about India’s three successive votes against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency, between 2003 and 2008, in addition to its rapprochement with the United States (US), have raised an important domestic debate. This controversy has highlighted the lack of consensus among Indian policy makers about India’s “grand strategy”. Therefore, the outcome of the competition between different strategic subcultures regarding the definition of the means to achieve ‘strategic autonomy’ will greatly influence India’s foreign policy towards the Persian Gulf.
At the regional level, the political, economic and strategic tensions between the GGC States, Iran and Israel demonstrate India’s limited room to manoeuvre in West Asia, and raise doubts about the efficiency of this balanced policy in the long run. Arab states’ anxiety is driven by Tehran’s nuclear program, Iranian interference in neighbouring Iraq and Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s aggressive rhetoric against Israel and the West. These are regular subjects of discussion with their Indian partner. Thus, in the context of India’s growing strategic ties with the Gulf States, any regional crisis between Iran and the Gulf States will probably constraint India to side with the latters.
At the global level, India has been facing diplomatic dilemmas and has tried to strike a balance between answering the pressures of the US while simultaneously supporting Iran. Now, deeper strategic cooperation between India and the US has been encouraged by the growing convergence of their interests in terms of collective security. This dynamic is linked to the increasing economic and military presence of China in the region, which might threaten not only India’s regional interests, but also the US’. It might be argued that this strengthened relation will further incite India to cooperate with the GCC states rather than with Iran. Nevertheless, the evolution of the relationship between India and the Gulf States will also largely be determined by the latters’ position towards Pakistan and Afghanistan, and Iran is most likely to remain a key partner to India on these issues.
In order to better understand the evolution of this highly difficult ‘Look West Policy’, the overarching question to address is the role that India is willing to play in the region: whether it is that of a ‘bridging power’ between regional powers and between ‘North’ and ‘South’; a ‘bandwagonning power’ to the US; or a ‘leading power’ that shapes regional and global strategic dynamics. So far, India has not yet been able to combine the pursuit of its own interests and the establishment of its strong leadership in the region. It has indeed appeared as a ‘status quo’ power. Today, security matters are increasingly pressing India toward a more assertive position.