India’s sulk over the China-brokered Saudi-Iranian normalisation of diplomatic relations can only be called petulant behaviour. What has happened is an epochal event. Henry Kissinger drew the analogy of his own accomplishment in an extraordinary diplomatic career when, as Secretary of State in the Richard Nixon administration, he helped achieve rapprochement with Beijing amidst its tensions with Moscow.
We have been busy building temples in the Emirates while the Sheikhs were heading for China in search of technology!
One aspect of the Saudi-Iranian deal that has implications for India’s immediate external environment is that the strategic situation in the Persian Gulf region, India’s extended neighbourhood, has dramatically changed. This can only be seen as the culmination of a series of repositioning on the part of the regional states that have been underway in the regional politics, as they increasingly took to diversifying their foreign policies away from the preponderant dependency on the West historically, and steadily and unmistakably began asserting their strategic autonomy with a newfound self-assuredness — be it Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt or Turkey.
It remains a mystery whether that process, which was actually overt, simply didn’t register in the Indian consciousness, or the government ignored it as some aberration that didn’t fit into the entrenched paradigms in Indian thinking. India’s first-rate cadre of Arabist diplomats wouldn’t have led the leadership up the garden path. Simply put, we went into a deep strategic slumber even as West Asia transformed.
The euphoria over Abraham Accord; the bizarre grouping known as I2U2 (touted as West Asian Quad); the unwarranted uplift given to Israel whose main credential is that it is a vassal state of the US; the sheer naiveté in our faith that the US is the indispensable power in West Asia’s geopolitics — there is no question that these deeply flawed assumptions stand exposed today as caprices on the part of the Indian leadership.
Today, Israel stares at strategic isolation in its region and America, its mentor-cum-benefactor-cum-guardian-cum-protector, stands diminished. Abraham Accord, which Indian lobbyists equated with US interests, and hailed as a historic event, has eventually turned out to be a damp squib. Washington Post columnist David Ignatius says the UAE is also ‘courting’ Beijing! We have been busy building Hindu temples in the Emirates while the Sheikhs were heading for China in search of technology!
A second aspect of the Saudi-Iranian deal is about China’s mediatory role in it. Kissinger noted that ‘China has in recent years declared that it needs to be a participant in the creation of the world order. It has now made a significant move in that direction.’ Of course, Chinese President Xi Jinping himself stated last week that Beijing should ‘actively participate in the reform and construction of the global governance system’ and promote ‘global security initiatives’. Since India has chosen to be China’s adversary, it needs to take note with utmost seriousness that Beijing is inexorably becoming a participant in the shaping of the world order and the world community welcomes it.
As an aspiring global power, India needs to come to terms with this geopolitical reality. India lacks the capability to block China’s strides as a colossus on the world stage. However, being a subaltern of the West and clinging on to the US’ apron strings isn’t an option as it will be unworthy of a ‘civilisation state’ and most certainly risky. So far, India’s response has been to reinforce the bonhomie with Australia and Japan, its two Quad partners in Asia. But these two ‘western’ allies of the US, bound together by security pacts, host American military bases and are extending a red-carpet welcome to NATO in the Asian region, which sets them apart.
Canberra and Tokyo hope to persuade India to join their bandwagon for the remaking of the Asian order. By and large, Asian countries remain lukewarm, though. India cannot but be wary that the Biden administration’s main thrust is military deterrence fuelling an Asian arms race, with which India can identify only at the risk of grave consequences. NATO’s defeat in Ukraine will seriously damage the transatlantic system and the US’ hopes that casting China as enemy might rally Europe are unrealistic. Besides, the China-Russia quasi-alliance will resist. Should India get sucked into the maelstrom?
The US strategies seriously impact peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific, as they are anchored on bloc politics and confrontation, and their self-serving geopolitical agenda is to create a NATO-replica in the Asian continent. The Anglo-Saxon clique known as AUKUS — comprising the US, Britain and Australia—opens a Pandora’s box as other countries will likely follow suit, which will seriously impact the international nuclear non-proliferation regime and even lead to its collapse. Will that serve Indian interests?
Alas, India is mutely witnessing the US’ audacious blueprint to split the ASEAN. The philosophy of consensual politics with primacy attached to mutual respect, openness and inclusiveness, consensus through consultation, and accommodating the comfort levels of all sides is also the quintessence of ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’, the foreign policy credo which the government espouses at world forums. Any fracturing of the ASEAN diminishes India. ASEAN’s centrality in the Asian power dynamic is something India must actively promote instead of chanting it as a mantra.
India’s visible unease over the Saudi-Iranian deal harkens back to its decades-old strategic predicament. The entrenched Indian narrative on China, a legacy of the ‘Nehruvian’ era, is delusional, and our adversarial mindset is archaic. In a third term in office beyond 2024, the leadership must cut the Gordian knot and liberate Indian foreign policy from shibboleths. Russia will help India in that process.
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