In a world where China and the US are likely to be in constant competition, India is emerging as the probable hedge power between the two. This will have repercussions for India’s role in the Middle East.
India’s image remains that of a non-aligned nation and supporter of the status quo. It is a member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, the emerging alliance of democracies led by the US and incorporating Japan and Australia as well as India. It is also the largest recipient of financing from the China-led Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank and a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which is led by Russia and China. Despite their differences, China and India have identical positions on a host of issues, such as climate change and the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of countries.
Last summer’s border clashes between the Chinese and Indian armies have raised concerns in New Delhi over the possibility of a war on two fronts, with Pakistan and China. To be fair, defense policy planners have always factored this scenario into their analyses. But those clashes of summer 2020 have concentrated minds in New Delhi. India is likely to pay close attention to and spend its military budget on its border infrastructure and augmenting military assets to fight a two-front war. This will detract from any effort at projecting hard power further afield, either in the Gulf or the Red Sea. Unlike China, India is not likely to set up a military base on the Red Sea any time soon.
Closely allied to China, Russia has publicly expressed strong reservations over India’s membership of the US-led Quad. It remains to be seen whether India goes ahead with its $2.5 billion deal to buy the Russian S-400 missile system, which could invite American sanctions. Hitherto a close strategic partner of India, Russia has pursued closer ties with Pakistan over the last few years. In early April, Russia offered to sell arms to Pakistan. If New Delhi veers further toward the Quad, India can say goodbye to accessing lucrative reconstruction contracts in Syria, let alone playing any political role in conflict resolution that secures its interests in the region. China, meanwhile, hopes to resolve the various conflicts in the Middle East by assembling a regional multilateral conference. If New Delhi does not kowtow to Beijing and persists in pursuing closer ties with Washington, India will be left at the sidelines of the evolving Pax Sinica in the Middle East.
Now that Iran and China have signed a 25-year strategic partnership agreement (the terms of which are still unclear), and with the Taliban likely to be included in a future Afghan government, India’s investments in the Chabahar port on Iran’s southern coast and hopes of a transit corridor via Afghanistan to Central Asia, are now no more than pipe dreams. In this situation, India will need Iran more than Iran needs India. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has already indicated his displeasure at India’s warming relations with Israel by making several pointedly critical comments about Kashmir and the need for India to “adopt a just policy… and prevent the oppression and bullying of Muslims in this region.”
This is likely to lead to India playing down its fast-growing strategic relationship with Israel and Saudi Arabia. The proposed plan announced in 2019 for India and Saudi Arabia to procure and produce defense equipment together will be the first to suffer.
Despite the Biden administration’s plans to include India in a grand alliance of democracies, there has been some significant democratic backsliding in India. In terms of freedom of speech, civil liberties, political accountability and the independence of institutions, India is looking a lot more like China than the US. This is why China and India are likely to make common cause to reject Western scrutiny of their internal affairs.
This will also complicate India’s ties with Middle East countries. Next year India enters an important political cycle, with state elections in 2022 and national elections in 2024. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party will probably seek to inflame religious tensions in order to consolidate the Hindu nationalist vote. This will be done via rhetoric and policy. The passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act last year, which introduced religion as a criterion for citizenship in an officially secular India, led to disquiet in the Middle East. But because India is not China, the Middle East’s political elites will feel less emboldened to criticize the goings-on in India in the coming years. This is likely to be a key obstacle to forming closer ties.
In the immediate post-Covid future, India is likely to focus on reinvigorating its economy. There will be constraints on allocating funds to local defense industries and even the overall defense budget. This will put paid to any plans Middle East states had of looking to India as a supplier or joint manufacturer of arms. India is neither likely to become less dependent on the Middle East for its energy needs, nor is the sizeable remittance-generating Indian diaspora in the Gulf coming home anytime soon. As a result, it is more likely that India will focus squarely on its ongoing commercial transactions with the region.
Combined with the need to hedge between China and the US, this means that in the medium-term, the Middle East should not expect India to be a strategic partner.
Dnyanesh Kamat is a political analyst who focuses on the Middle East and South Asia. He also consults on socio-economic development for government and private-sector entities.