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India's Isolationism

Why New Delhi Refuses to Engage the Middle East


By Shashank Joshi
OCTOBER 14, 2014

An Indian woman displays the photograph of her brother, an Indian worker


who was kidnapped in Iraq, in the northern Indian city of Amritsar, June
2014. (Munish Sharma / Courtesy Reuters)

Shortly after Narendra Modi became prime minister of India in May


2014, his government faced its first foreign policy crisis. Just weeks
after his inauguration, members of the Islamic State of Iraq and alSham (ISIS) captured 41 Indian construction workers in Mosul and 46

Indian nurses in Tikrit, producing one of Indias worst-ever hostage


crises.
This was not the first time that New Delhi had been rocked by events
2,000 miles away. In 1990, for example, India had to evacuate over
110,000 citizens from the Middle East during the first Gulf War -- an
operation that required just under 500 flights over a period of two
months. Faced with turbulence it could neither prevent nor influence,
but which threatened the lives of Indian citizens and the countrys
economy, New Delhi carried out similar airlifts from Libya in 2011 and
Iraq in 2014.
The fate of the Middle East, home to roughly seven million Indians, has
long been tied to that of India. As Salman Khurshid, then Indias foreign
minister, noted in 2013, the Persian Gulf, which supplies two-thirds of
Indias oil and gas, is the countrys largest trading partner -- more
important than the 28 countries of the European Union combined.
Despite its stake in the region, however, India has remained passive in
the face of crises. It appears wary of taking on a more assertive
diplomatic or military role -- more likely to evacuate citizens than send
more in to grapple with the Middle Easts problems.
AT ARMS LENGTH
Despite its stake in the region, India has remained passive in the face
of crises in the Middle East.
Over the past decade, New Delhi has reacted to turmoil in the Middle
East with interest but little else. In 2003, for example, according to the
historian Rudra Chaudhuri, New Delhi briefly considered deploying its
6th Infantry Division to northern Iraq -- a contingent that would have
been the second largest in the country, behind only that of the United
States. New Delhi ultimately dismissed this possibility, however, in the
absence of a supportive resolution from the United Nations. Although
New Delhi appeared eager to advance the U.S.-Indian relationship by
committing troops, it would not do so at the cost of its historical
commitment to multilateralism and to what Atal Bihari Vajpayee,
Indias prime minister at the time, called an honest nonaligned
policy.

New Delhi remained committed to nonalignment in 2011, when it


opposed NATOs intervention in Libya against Muammar al-Qaddafis
regime. India abstained from voting on UN Resolution 1973, which
authorized the use of force in Libya, calling the situation there an
internal affair, and hewing closely to the Russian and Chinese
position. Indias permanent representative to the United Nations
complained that the pro-interventionist powers did not ever try to
bring about a peaceful end to the crisis.
New Delhi has viewed subsequent uprisings in Syria, Bahrain, and
elsewhere similarly. Like China and Russia, India voted against UN
resolutions in February and July 2012 that called for Syrian President
Bashar al-Assad to step down. It also abstained from voting on a
harsher resolution in July 2013, arguing that it could not support
effecting regime change by sleight of hand, and opposed the United
States proposed punitive missile strikes. Indeed, Indias foreign
ministry continues to assert on its website that India and Syria enjoy
friendly political relations based on historic and civilizational ties.
WHATS AT STAKE
What explains Indias reluctance to involve itself in the Middle East? In
part, New Delhi is wary of supporting popular uprisings that it views as
causing regional instability and disruptions in the global energy
market. The Indian government heavily subsidizes public sector
domestic oil companies and products -- New Delhi has spent 1.4
percent of Indias GDP on fuel subsidies since 2008 -- and is therefore
particularly vulnerable to market volatility, especially if the Indian
rupee falls relative to the U.S. dollar.
India has another vested interest in the Middle Easts status quo:
remittances. Given the substantial population of Indian citizens in the
Middle East -- Libya was home to some 18,000 in 2011, for example,
and Iraq to 10,000 this year -- it is no surprise that the region provides
India with its highest remittances. In 2012, for example, India received
$69 billion in remittances, of which $30 billion came from the Gulf
States, including $15 billion from the United Arab Emirates and $8
billion from Saudi Arabia. Instability, in the form of Western
interventions, domestic unrest, and the like, threatens this cash flow.

In addition to these economic concerns, New Delhi has deeper


ideological reasons for its opposition to intervention in the Middle East.
Indian policymakers tend to view recent Western intervention in the
Middle East as comparable to the U.S.-funded and Pakistan-led effort to
support opposition forces in Afghanistan after the Soviet Unions
invasion in 1979. In the Indian view, it was the Wests intervention that
primed Afghanistan for the growth and spread of radical Islam.
Suhasini Haidar, strategic & diplomatic affairs editor of the Indian
newspaper The Hindu, summarized the feelings of many Indians in
a July 2014 op-ed: Each of the countries today at the center of the
worlds concerns over extremism is, in fact, a country that has seen
direct or indirect Western intervention, not Western absence -Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, and Iraq. Moreover, India is particularly
wary of Saudi Arabias role in supporting ultra-conservative Islamists, a
caution compounded by Indias pragmatic relationship with Iran, Saudi
Arabias regional rival.
These beliefs explain why, during Modis first official visit to
Washington in September, he ruled out India joining the U.S.-led
coalition against ISIS, which includes Saudi Arabia but excludes Iran. It
also helps explain why India has not supported opposition forces in
Syria: Like Moscow and Tehran, New Delhi sees the Assad government
as an authoritarian but secular regime that has been attacked by
fundamentalists armed and funded by the West, and believes the civil
war will lead to long-term disorder, further extremism, or both.
A LARGER ROLE?
For now, India appears unlikely to broaden its role in the Middle East.
At the Geneva II peace talks in early 2014, for example, India appeared
unwilling to use its influence over the Assad regime to help broker an
end to the Syrian civil war. Unlike countries such as Turkey that revel in
the pomp of mediation, India sees advantage in obscurity: Why invite
global scrutiny of its position on a sectarian civil war, the argument
goes, when the prospects of success are so low and the likelihood of
alienating one side so high?
The fate of the Middle East, home to roughly seven million Indians, has
long been tied to that of India.

In September, an article in the Hindustan Times newspaper suggested


that, in the wake of the spread of ISIS, New Delhi would consider
offering material and financial support to the Kurdistan Regional
Government. India has traditionally been wary of taking steps that
can be seen as support for separatist elements in Iraq, a senior Indian
official is quoted as saying. But in light of the changing geopolitics of
the region, we need to hedge our bets with all key players. But there
has been little follow-up from the Indian government, and it remains
unclear what commitments, if any, will be made.
India has too much on its regional plate -- an increasingly violent
border with Pakistan, growing Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean,
and a fragile Afghanistan -- to devote serious resources to the Middle
East. But a nation that seeks a permanent seat on the UN Security
Council and has so many economic and security interests at stake in
the Middle East could benefit from a larger role. Any future military
role, however, would have to be predicated on a robust UN-authorised
multilateral framework, something that is likely to prove elusive.
New Delhi could nevertheless leverage its unusual position -- positive
relations with both Iran and Israel, for instance -- to play an important
role in regional diplomacy. A larger and more diverse Indian diplomatic
and intelligence footprint in the region would also help India protect its
citizens and understand the complex mosaic of regional players in a
place like northern Iraq. And, as Russian and Chinese interest in the
Middle East grows, Western powers should welcome a broader and
deeper Indian role.