India has a developed economic relationship with the Gulf monarchies, and has lately invested in re-furbishing of political ties. The most vivid example of this was the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the UAE recently, and earlier that of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Saudi Arabia, which yielded the important gain of Riyadh helping us apprehend leading terrorists.
These Sunni Gulf states have traditionally had strong ties with Pakistan. With Shia Iran too, for a number of years, New Delhi has cultivated a productive bilateral relationship and is engaged in the construction of the Chabahar port, a facility of geostrategic significance. Indeed, military ties with Israel have also been nourished to mutual satisfaction.
This is the diplomatic backdrop in which India looks ready to dispatch a flotilla of warships in early May, which will be engaged in displaying Indian capabilities in the region, and is slated to make port calls in Dubai in the UAE, Bahrain and Oman. A separate ship of war will call at Bandar Abbas in Iran. It will be short-sighted to read this entire schema as showing the flag, or a projection of military power, the present-day equivalent of what used to be known as “gunboat diplomacy”. India’s foreign policy postulates and postures are simply not geared towards intervening militarily in this region of vital strategic significance to us as a supplier of oil which also plays host to some eight million Indian workers and professionals.
Properly speaking, the purpose of this naval exuberance appears to be no more than letting the regional states know that we do possess some capabilities of a military kind, and could conceivably become partners with states in West Asia in the defence field in the future, possibly even cooperating in joint defence production.
However, Indian policy-makers will do well not to lose sight of the fact that the Gulf states are heavily committed with the Americans as far as their defence goes. They are not likely to be in any need of military coordination with a country like India in the foreseeable future. Any military kinetics involving India in this region cannot even be a distant thought.
Of course, the US is pressing India to sign up as a strategic ally through the inking of “foundational agreements”. The first of these, the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement, was keenly discussed during the visit of US defence secretary Ashton Carter earlier this month. It is not unlikely that sending off a flotilla of naval vessels to the Gulf in an area of strong US military engagement links to the notion of an early equation with the Americans. Is India also signalling China, for instance? Doubtful. Indian claims to naval power projection are unlikely to be taken too seriously....