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India’s Strategic Vision in West Asia: UAE As the Pivot

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India’s foreign policy approach in post-cold war period was aimed at expanding its diplomatic, economic and strategic outreach in its immediate vicinity.

In this direction, Look East policy was launched by Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao in 1991 which facilitated Free Trade Agreements with member states of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). In the preceding decade, the extended neighborhood towards the west was the primary area of focus. On 27 July 2005, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh introduced ‘Look West policy’ with the objective of deepening engagement with the West Asian region.

After Narendra Modi’s ascent to power on 26 May 2014, he has been credited for re-inventing India’s ‘Look West policy’. While his initial interaction with the region was slow and the foreign policy was tailored to enhance rapprochement with its immediate neighbours and the US, Prime Minister Modi’s maiden visit to United Arab Emirates (UAE) on 16-17 August 2015 opened the scope of strategic partnership with the Persian Gulf region in general and UAE in particular.

Modi’s decision to visit the Gulf state reflects its foreign policy priorities and the importance it accords on the emirate as a pivot for its strategic outreach in the region. In terms of India’s strategic approach, UAE occupies a central position due to its geographical location at the intersection of the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea. The need to maintain an effective maritime infrastructure with UAE and securing sea lines of communication (SLOC) is therefore crucial to secure India’s energy and trade routes.

UAE comprising of seven emirates namely Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras Al Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm Al Quwain declared its independence from British rule on 2 December 1971. Both states have maintained cordial relations based on energy and trade. In 2016, India remained the largest export destination at $11.3 billion and second largest source of imports at $30 billion for the UAE. India’s total bilateral trade with the Gulf state is at $53 billion in 2016 making it the third largest trading partner for India.

At the same time, India is its largest trading partner. In 2016-2017, UAE has been the fifth largest supplier of crude oil and hosts 2.6 million Indian immigrants.

Expanding Areas of Strategic Cooperation
India has repeatedly emphasized the geopolitical prominence of the region and its importance in terms of economy, trade, labor, diplomacy, culture, and security. India’s relationship trajectory with the Gulf state is historically dominated by energy and trade.

However, in the present decade, the relationship has undergone a significant shift as the focus has been shifted to newer areas of cooperation. Due to dynamic circumstances in the region, the relationship has been shaped by ever-increasing cooperation in the area of security.

UAE Narendra Modi and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al NahyanIndia’s Look West policy is reciprocated by Gulf States and especially UAE policy to seek better engagement with its eastern neighbors including India due to structural change in global energy market wherein oil from the region is fl owing more towards South, South-east and East Asia than trans-Atlantic markets. As a consequence of the financial distress suffered by western states, UAE and other Gulf states are increasingly looking towards India for seeking security guarantee through defense cooperation.

The growing bonhomie between both states is reflected by the heightened frequency of high level visits. While Modi reopened the process of strategic dialogue through his visit in 2015, the Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of UAE’s armed forces visited India in 2016 and 2017.

The three meetings besides underlining the potential and scope of investments have spent serious attention on strategic cooperation. The joint statements published during these summits cover the broad areas of crossborder terrorism, radicalisation and social unrest, terror financing, piracy, money laundering, drug trafficking, transnational crimes, extradition arrangements, police training, cyber security, maritime security, inter-operability during humanitarian assistance in case of conflicts and nature disasters, defence equipments manufacturing etc.

Before Modi’s visit in 2015, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj set the ground by visiting UAE on 10-12 November 2014 along with other Gulf States. He became the second Prime Minister to visit UAE since Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s visit in May 1981. The 2015 visit by the Indian Prime Minister extensively focussed on security concern arising from Islamic State (IS) and urged all the states to curb terrorist infrastructure. Both states agreed to coordinate efforts to counter radicalization and condemned efforts by states and organizations to misuse religion in promoting violence. It stated its commitment towards cracking down terror networks, financing
sources, and their movement.

India’s National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval accompanied the Prime Minister during the visit. A dialogue channel between National Security Advisors and National Security Councils of both states was formed to cooperate and coordinate actions against terrorist activities which would meet every six months.

They agreed to control, regulate and share information on flows of funds by individuals and organizations aimed at radicalizing and developing terrorists infrastructure. It made specific commitment to establish Strategic Security Dialogue between both states which was held on 20 January 2017; conducting regular exercises and training of naval, air, land and Special Forces and welcomed the Gulf state to participate in International Fleet Review held in February 2016 in Vishakhapatnam, India.

The joint statement stated the need to enhance security cooperation in counter-terrorism operations, intelligence-sharing, and capacity-building. UAE agreed to work together towards Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism proposed by India in the UN6.

In the following year, on 10 to 12 February 2016, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of UAE’s armed forces visited India and reviewed the progress of security dialogue between National Security Councils and expressed satisfaction over the level of bilateral security cooperation and highlighted on range of security issues such as counter-terrorism, maritime security in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean region and cybersecurity. The issue of cybersecurity was extensively discussed with both states agreeing to share technological knowledge to curb the influence of radical ideologies. It facilitated cooperation in joint training exercises and participation in defense exhibitions.

Earlier in 2008, India hosted the inaugural Indian Ocean Naval Symposium which was aimed at enhancing maritime cooperation among the littoral states of Indian Ocean region to share information and discuss issues and challenges. Presently it consists of 35 members including India and UAE. The second edition of the symposium was held in Abu Dhabi on 10-11 May 20107.

On the bilateral level, navy to navy staff talks inaugurated in January 2007 has been steadily followed up along with reciprocal port visits, training exercises to combat terrorism and piracy and high-level delegations. The staff talks convened in New Delhi on 18-20 September 2017 discussed on operational interactions, training interactions, hydrography cooperation, maritime domain awareness etc.

Ports visits have been common in both states. In 2014, INS Tir, Sujata, and Tarangini; in 2015, INS Deepak, Delhi, Tavar and Trishul and in 2016 INS Delhi, Tarkash, Deepak visited Dubai to further its strategic objective. On 4-7 February 2017, Indian Coast Guard ship, ICGS Samudra Pavak docked at Dubai port in its mission to exchange methods with UAE Coast Guards. Indian Naval Chief, Admiral Sunil Lamba also visited UAE on 26-28 February 2017 to bolster efforts by conducting training, operational interactions and played a major role in smooth functioning of Joint Defence Cooperation Committee between the two states which were lastly organized in December 2016.

The emphasis on strategic cooperation was further reflected by the visit of India’s Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar on 22- 23 May 2016. It was the first visit by any Indian Defence Minister t the Gulf state. During his visit, both states signed an MOU on the mutual protection of classified information.

The Defence Minister met with senior dignitaries from UAE government and held discussions on military logistics, cooperation in hydrographic studies and arms production and procurement. During the 2016 visit of the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, among the nine Memorandum of Understandings signed between both states, defense cooperation was limited to one MOU focussing on technical cooperation in cyberspace and cybercrime between Indian Ministry of Home Affairs and UAE Ministry of Interior. Both states also signed an MOU on space cooperation.

The remaining MOUs dealt with investment links, banking, currency swap arrangement, insurance, renewable energy, cultural cooperation, skill development, and entrepreneurship. The level of strategic engagement has subsequently widened after the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi’s second visit to India as the Chief Guest of Republic Day on 26 January 2017.

Numerous political commentators have underlined the symbolic meaning of this visit and the primacy India accords to the Gulf state. Both leaders announced that counterterrorism, maritime security, and cyber security as the key pillars of bilateral strategic partnership.

Among the 14 MOUs signed this time, sizeable attention has been paid to the strategic dimension of their ties. Besides the landmark agreement on the Comprehensive Strategic partnership between both states, MOUs have been signed on cooperation in defense industry between private and public sector industries in terms of joint manufacturing, research, and development, innovation, and technology transfer. In the sphere of cyberspace, India’s National Security Council Secretariat signed an MOU with UAE’s National Electronic Security Authority with regard to cooperation in cyberspace and technology development and agreed to establish joint R&D centers. Both states have expressed concern on the problem of human trafficking in the earlier meetings.

During this period, MOU was signed to tackle the problem and undertake measures to prevent, rescue, recover and repatriate the victims. Two MOUs were signed on the subject of maritime cooperation for easing commercial navigation, securing choke points in the western Indian Ocean, joint anti-piracy training and exercise, technical arrangement, white shipping information exchange, free transfer of monies and developing a framework for mutual recognition of certificates of competency of marine officers and crew. UAE also displayed interest in India’s coastal surveillance system.

UAE Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al NahyanIn terms of diplomacy, the Crown Prince stated that it wants India to play a pro-active role in regional and global affairs and reiterated its commitment to support India’s bid for permanent membership in United Nations Security Council (UNSC). India highly appreciated the Gulf state’s serious condemnation against attacks of Indian air force base in Pathankot on 2 January 2016 and army base in Uri on 18 September 2016.

The condemnation is indicated towards Pakistan’s role in these attacks. The 10 January 2017 terrorist attacks on Kabul and Kandahar was also pointed and India expressed solidarity with UAE that resulted in the loss of lives of its citizens.

On 20 January 2017, the first round of India-UAE policy planning Strategic Dialogue co-chaired by M J Akbar, Indian Minister of State for External Affairs and Dr. Anwar Gargash, UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs was organized in New Delhi. Akbar visited UAE on 28-29 October 2017 to attend the second round of strategic dialogue to discuss on bilateral, regional and global interests. Former Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan, G Parthasarathy lauded Modi’s imaginative diplomacy which has aided India in maintaining a warm relationship with the regional powers in West Asia such as UAE, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, and Israel.

While Look East policy has been an economic success, there are political limitations in pursuing larger strategic engagement due to the surge in China’s regional influence. In case of West Asia on the other hand, India has untapped potential for India to expand its influence.

The steady military performance and its recent role in humanitarian assistance in Yemen can be utilized as a strategic asset to perpetuate its goals. Sanjaya Baru argues that India and UAE relationship is culminated by ‘look at each other’ policy due to the breach of strategic trust between the west and West Asia.

Under such conditions, India’s strategic policy vis-a-vis UAE is focussed on curbing actions and influence of terrorist groups on policy level as well as in terms of military actions, collaborating against piracy in western Indian Ocean region and easing and securing naval communication. On a geopolitical level, India can immensely benefit from this relationship consolidating its strategic presence and enhancing security cooperation with Persian Gulf region and West Asia.

By: Hirak Jyoti Das

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