India Must Formulate Middle East Strategy

If the Indian Ocean will take center stage in this century, India must develop a Middle East strategy.

Government building in New Delhi, India, 2008
Government building in New Delhi, India, 2008 (Laurie Jones)

As the world is finetuned to the future of the Middle East after the so-called “Arab Spring” toppled decade-old dictatorships in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia this year, the rising power of South Asia is contemplating its Middle East policy.

The problem with Indian strategic thinking is that it’s embroiled in ideological abstracts like nonalignment and forming rainbow coalitions across the global south with other BRICs.

An active participation in multilateral organization is useful but it’s also important to focus on geostrategy from the perspective of national self-interest. This has been a lacking in India.

In this context, India has to both consider the great powers of the West and China to the east. Both had a solid geostrategy before they became international powers. Britain during the nineteenth century and the United States since the end of World War II have conducted foreign policy with a clear geopolitical understanding — especially in the Middle East.

The very phrase “Middle East” was coined by the American strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan before there were ever dictators to be deposed there or oil supplies to be secured.

The fact that an American “invented” the Middle East demonstrates how important the region is to the global power game. It provides a perfect buffer region between the land powers of Eurasia and the world’s major sea lanes. If the Middle East assumed significance in a century during which power was concentrated in the Atlantic area, one must recognize the implications for an Asian century in which the Indian Ocean is predicted to take center stage.

This is why it’s crucial for India to formulate a convincing strategy for the Middle East that’s not confined to abstract principles.

Moreover, if there is a cold war between China and the United States for spheres of influence in the twenty-first century, the vast oil resources of the Middle East will be more hotly contested. China has not actually started a “great game” there because it would rather the United States remain involved in their costly counterinsurgency campaigns — enabling China to do business in the region once the Americans are weakened.

India’s position is peculiar in this regard. It has tried to appease the authoritarians of the region with its policy of nonalignment but failed. India, a majority Hindu country ever at odds with Muslims in Pakistan, won’t be perceived as a friend in the Arab world. It is in India’s interest therefore to perpetuate Washington’s paramountcy in the region and prevent Beijing from taking its place. Endorsing notions of a “responsibility to protect” to legitimize interventionism in the Middle East does not serve this interest.

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