India’s Art of Balancing in West Asia


The Indian foreign minister SM Krishna’s four nation visit to Israel, Jordan, Palestine and the UAE from January 8 to 11, 2012 has been seen as a beginning of “new approach ” in India’s foreign policy towards West Asia in general and the Arab Gulf region in particular. India has unequivocally accepted the paradigm that the relations with both Palestine as well as Israel are equally significant to its core national interests. Israel is important to India from defence, security and technology point of view, while Palestine is significant for humanitarian, ideological and strategic reasons. The seeds of this renewed foreign policy stance towards West Asia were sown during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s speech at the UN last year when Dr. Singh reiterated Indian’s historical commitment to the cause of Palestine independence and statehood, and hoped both Palestine and Israel exist side by side amicably. However, from policy perspective, India has entered into a ‘tough game of balancing the two rivals’ in the Arab Gulf region.

India recognised Israel’s statehood in 1950, but it started formal diplomatic engagements only in 1992. Since then relations between the two countries have made rapid progress on a number of issues; defence, trade, technology, agriculture, security and strategic interests rapidly occupied greater attention. From a base of $200 million trade in 1992 comprising mainly of diamond, the non-defence bilateral trade between the two countries jumped to $5.6 billion in 2011. After signing the free trade agreement the bilateral trade is expected to double from the current $5.6 billion to $ 12 billion. Other areas of cooperation which are of immense significance include agriculture technology (currently Israel has 27 projects in seven states in India), particularly dry-land farming, bio-technology suited to pharmaceuticals, information technology, water management such as drip and sprinkler methods, telecommunications, high-tech industries and homeland security and enhancing ‘people-to people’ contacts.

In the field of defence, Israel has emerged as the top arms supplier to India, even surpassing Russia in some areas. In the past decade, defence deals worth $10 billion were signed. Over a period of five years (2002 to 2007) India concluded approximately $5 billion defence deal and post-2007, another deal of $1.4 billion has been signed to purchase Spyder surface-to-air missiles and Barak-8 tactical air defence systems. The two countries are also working on joint projects, including long-range surface-to-air missile (LRSAM) for the Indian Navy and medium-range SAM (MRSAM) for the Indian Air Force. India may also conclude $1.8 billion deal to obtain Spike anti-tank missiles also.

Besides these agreements, India and Israel also enjoy close cooperation in sensitive areas such as security, intelligence sharing, counter-terrorism and even nuclear weaponry. Both countries have encouraged people to people contacts as well. In 2010, nearly 50,000 Israelis visited India, which is around 20 percent of the total foreigners visiting India from West Asia. While from India, nearly 40,000 people visited Israel, which is almost double to the figure of 2009.

During the visit, Israel also assured India to support its candidature for permanent membership in the UN Security Council. India, as a part of diversification of oil sourcing, is considering to sign a strategic long-term gas supply agreement with Israel. Till date Qatar is our largest gas supplier.

After visiting Israel, Mr. Krishna met the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and his counterpart Raid al-Maliki. This, in fact, affirms India’s historical stand on the issue of Palestine, which gives a clear signal to Israel that India would like to balance its relations with Palestine. India supports an independent and united Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital. Despite vigorous lobbying by the US-West against Mahmud Abbas’s initiative for statehood, India voted in Palestine’s favour in UNESCO. India has also given clear signal that it won’t backtrack on UNSC where the resolution of Palestine statehood is still pending.

Shri SM Krishna’s visit to Amman and the UAE also indicates India’s willingness to maintain as well as enhance its bilateral relations with Arab countries. UAE has been India’s largest trading partner with more than $60 billion trade, while Jordan has been a significant supplier of fertilizer to India. Approximately, 2 million Indians are working in UAE and remit substantial amount of remittances. India imports around 8 percent of its oil needs from the UAE.

In one stroke India has achieved three major foreign policy objectives, namely getting defence and counter-terrorism support from Israel, garnering active support on trade and investment from countries like Jordan and the UAE and last but not the least, reiterating its ideological and political support to the cause of Palestine, particularly its statehood.

However, it is important that India should remain proactive towards its long term interests in West Asia, particularly under two likely scenarios. One, the West Asian region is passing through a phase of high political volatility, hence, its foreign policy would definitely transform; second, Iran and its nuclear conundrum. India needs to be meticulous in balancing between different players imbued with different interests in West Asia, for instance, the growing tension between Iran and the US on one hand and the increasing concerns of the Arab Gulf countries towards regional instability on the other.

Author Note
Dr Zakir Hussain is Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.