India's balancing act
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s West Asian visit exhibited his strong political acumen in maintaining equilibrium between hostile nations
Indian diplomacy towards West Asia was on full display this month with Prime Minister Narendra Modi undertaking a historic visit to Palestine besides travelling to Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman to strengthen and redefine India's ties. India also welcomed Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who travelled to India for three days from February 15 for the first time after being elected to the post in 2013. The visit, exactly a month after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's state visit to New Delhi, is seen as India's act to balance its relationship with West Asian countries. Modi had visited Iran's archrivals in the region – Saudi Arabia and Israel in April 2016 and last year, respectively.
Modi and the Iranian leader held substantive talks on Saturday on key issues of trade, energy, security system and terrorism, following which the two sides signed nine pacts, including a lease contract between Iran's Port and Maritime Organisation and India Ports Global Limited (IPGL) to take over the operations of existing facilities at the Shahid Beheshti Port—Phase 1 of the Chabahar port—for 18 months. The Chabahar Port project is important for India as it will allow it to bypass Pakistan in accessing not just Afghanistan but also central Asian countries. The two countries have gone ahead to strengthen their bilateral ties, especially in the oil sector, despite US President Donald Tump's threat to impose a sanction on Iran.
Undoubtedly, Prime Minister Modi's visit to Palestine, which followed his equally historic visit to Israel and hosting of the Israeli Prime Minister showed that India viewed its ties with Palestine and the Jewish state as mutually independent and exclusive. He undertook the visits to the West Asian nations from November 9-12, 2017. With the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas standing by his side after their talks in Ramallah, the Prime Minister reaffirmed India's support for the Palestinian cause but made significant departures from India's stand on the issue by omitting a "united" and "viable" Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital.
"I have once again reassured President Abbas that India is committed to upholding the interests of the Palestinian people. India hopes for an early realisation of a sovereign, independent state of Palestine, living in an environment of peace," Modi, who flew to Ramallah from Amman, where he held talks with Jordan's King Abdullah, said.
In May last year, when Abbas visited New Delhi, the Prime Minister had said, "we hope to see the realisation of a sovereign, independent, united and viable Palestine, co-existing peacefully with Israel." Traditionally, India has backed an independent, sovereign state of Palestine within 1967 borders and East Jerusalem as its capital. India was among more than 120 countries to vote in favour of a resolution last December calling for the US to drop its recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital.
In October 2015, then President Pranab Mukherjee while visiting Palestine had reiterated India's principled support to the Palestinian cause and called for a negotiated solution resulting in a "sovereign, independent, viable and united state of Palestine, with East Jerusalem as its capital, living within secure and recognised borders, side by side at peace with Israel as endorsed in the Quartet Roadmap and relevant UNSC Resolution." The Quartet Roadmap he referred to is the two-state plan suggested by the EU, the US, Russia and the UN to resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
In November 2013, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in a statement on the occasion of the International Solidarity Day with the Palestine people said that "India supports a negotiated resolution, resulting in a sovereign, independent, viable and united state of Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital, living within secure and recognised borders side by side and at peace with Israel…."
Middle East observers perceived the deletion of a "united" and "viable" Palestine in the Prime Minister's statement as a shift in India's longstanding policy with regard to the Palestinian cause. It reflected a lack of consistency and strategic vision on the Palestinian issue. Also, they feel that there was not much public support to the Prime Minister's visit to Palestine as was evident during his visit to Israel. Some Arab diplomats said that the visit to Palestine appeared to be more political in nature. There was no emphasis on East Jerusalem being the capital of Palestine and on the two-nation solution to resolve the issue. The Arab world, they said, was disappointed over this development.
This approach, they said, will send a wrong signal to the Arab world which has been looking at India to wholeheartedly stand by the people of Palestine in their struggle for their separate homeland. Also, they pointed out that there was no joint statement issued after Modi's meeting with Abbas indicating that there was no convergence of views between the two leaders.
During the visit, the two sides signed six agreements worth around 50 million USD that includes setting up of a 30 million USD super-speciality hospital in Beit Sahour and five million USD for construction of a centre for empowering women. There is no doubt that under Modi's regime India has given a new thrust to its policy towards the Arab world with which it has vital energy and economic interests, particularly the Gulf region which is home to approximately nine million Indians who remit USD 35 billion to home each year. The scale of India's security and commercial ties with Israel seems to be a cause of disquiet in the Arab world. Both India and Israel are now pushing for cooperation in agriculture, energy and cybersecurity in addition to defence. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), India has bought 41 per cent of the total Israeli arms exports between 2012 and 2016.
On his second visit to UAE since becoming the Prime Minister, Modi held wide-ranging talks with Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Giving importance to defence and security, the two countries will conduct their first bilateral naval exercise in the Gulf, going beyond the Arabian Sea, later this year.
One of the key takeaways of the Prime Minister's visit to Oman was the access given to India of its key port of Duqm for military use and logistical support. This is seen as a strategic move for India to expand its footprint in the Indian Ocean region. The port is located on the southeastern seaboard of Oman, overlooking the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. Recently, India deployed an attack submarine at the port. A joint statement issued after the talks between the Prime Minister and the ruler of Oman, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, mentioned that the two sides agreed to provide further impetus to the robust defence relations, including regular joint exercises by the three defence forces, training of the Navy, Air and Army officials.
The Indian side thanked Oman for facilitating operational visits by Indian Naval ships and aircraft as well as the Indian Air Force aircraft to various ports and airports.
(M Shakeel Ahmed is former Editor, PTI. He has also served as West Asia Correspondent for PTI, based in Bahrain from 1988 to 1995. The views expressed are strictly personal)