Written by Sreeja Kundu.
2017 marked a nodal shift in world politics. The evolution of the Indo-Pacific as a geopolitical concept is key, having almost become ubiquitous in our understanding of the regional security landscape. This is made all the more important by the steady and rapid Chinese ingress into the Indian Ocean region, perceptible through its military and diplomatic brinkmanship. India’s response thus must become more strategically minded.
From coalescing with like-minded democracies in the Quad to consolidating its reach with the ASEAN states, India is prepping for a dominant role in the Indo-Pacific region. New Delhi’s act of expanding its engagement with the Gulf nations symbolised through a plethora of visits by both Indian diplomats and their West Asian counterparts to South Block in recent times underscores the growing primacy of its Look West policy.
After years of negotiation , India has finally secured a deal with Iran where according to a latest leasing agreement signed between New Delhi and Tehran, India has full operational control of the Shahid Behesti port.
India’s interest towards West Asia have historically been linear, predominated mostly by demographics and economic imperatives. In this regard India had attained various postures, keeping in line with the Nehruvian bent of non-alignment and anti-interventionism . However the present flux of geopolitical uncertainty in Asia has raised the strategic stakes for India. A key component of the Indo-Pacific strategy has been the growing importance of regional powers along with their concomitant penetration into their adjacent subregions.
A major precedent with regards to the above context is India’s expanding participation in East Asia. This includes stepped -up economic interactions with the region manifested in a multitude of FTA’s with ASEAN, membership of regional forums including BIMSTEC, Mekong-Ganga cooperation where India plays a prominent institutional role and security interactions involving joint military exercises and counter-terrorism cooperation.
Contextualising India’s active operationalisation of its Act East policy, it’s Look West policy is also beginning to progressively gain traction.
Although the Indian navy has been quite forthcoming in terms of its Western outreach where it has partnered with regional maritime forces in anti-piracy operations since 2008, providing critical support and training to the Gulf Cooperation Council navies , yet there has been a void in terms of formal institutionalisation of India’s Look West policy. This is steadily changing with an ardent desire on India’s part to foster both security and economic cooperation with the West Asian countries.
Look West Policy: Primary rationale for induction
A typical instance that has wrecked havoc in the security architecture of the Indo-Pacific is the aggressive attitude by Chinese naval power, visible through its String of Pearls project subsumed under its flagship project, the Belt and Road initiative.
Contestation over maritime territories has led to a military and strategic build-up by China with the latest reports indicating the construction of a major new military base near Gwadar. In this context India is gradually building strategic relationship and facilities in the region. Along with formalising agreements with nations including Seychelles, Mauritius among others India is looking to further build strategic relationships and facilities near the Persian gulf .
After years of negotiation , India has finally secured a deal with Iran where according to a latest leasing agreement signed between New Delhi and Tehran, India has full operational control of the Shahid Behesti port. This is in lieu of India’s pursuit of modernising and expanding the Chabahar port near the Strait of Hormuza. Along with providing India with additional deployment and berthing facilities in the Indo-Pacific this would also act as the terminus of a new transport corridor linking the Indian Ocean with Central Asia and Russia. This has been aptly captured in PM Modi’s statement during the joint press conference with the Iranian President where he stated that ‘we will support the construction of the Chabahar -Zahedan rail link so that Chabahar gateway’s potential could be fully utilised’ .
Another operational instance of Modi’s Look West policy is the formalisation of an agreement between New Delhi and Muscat which provides India with access to the strategically located port of Duqm, on Oman’s southwestern coast . The port of Duqm which sits on the north-western edge of the Indian Ocean near to the entrance of the Strait of Hormuz will not only benefit the Indian navy in terms of combating piracy in one of the channels which serves as the conduit of commerce in the region, but also is strategically located near the port of Gwadar.
The way forward
The emergence of the Indo-Pacific as a geostrategic space which dramatically brought India to the core of Asian geopolitics has started a crucial reorientation of India’s foreign policy. As the region faces strong predicaments in the balance-of-power game in terms of the Sino-Indian rivalry, India is constantly increasing its partnership in the region. A quintessential instance includes, India’s relation with West Asian countries that has accelerated despite the political turmoil and violence that has convulsed the region . A significant factor about the new strategic partnership is it is not merely defined by India’s look west policy but rather the West Asia’s ‘look East policy’ .
From expanding the ambit of its cooperation with the West Asian countries, which encompasses defense and security agreements rather than mere energy and economy imperatives, both India and the West Asia would find them complementing each other in terms of sustaining the security architecture in the Indo-Pacific region. As India like most nations is steadily adjusting to a world where China’s imprimatur is getting stronger, the current approach in Modi’s Look west policy is optimistic. However , apart from nurturing the political relations a crucial way forward would include timely implementation of the proposed projects which would subsequently enhance India’s regional role in ‘ensuring peace, security and stability in the Indo-Pacific region’
Sreeja Kundu is a researcher at the Strategic Studies Department in the Observer Research Foundation , a think tank based in New Delhi. She tweets at @SreejaKundu . Image credit: by Indian Ministry of External Affairs/Flickr.