Belly dancing on a tightrope.
The Best Defense carried a guest blogpost by Daniel R. DePetris on how India and China’s increasing demand for energy resources might play out in the Arabian Peninsula and the Greater Middle East. The writer asks, how will New Delhi and Beijing’s foreign policies be affected by their quest for energy resources in the Middle East? Will they seek to assert themselves (thereby helping share “America’s burden”) or assume a more passive role?
These are all interesting questions, but also ones that have been largely answered. The broad contours of engagement with the Middle East have been laid out by both countries. China, in the past, tended to regard the Middle East as too distant for it to actively engage in the muddled politics of the region. Even at the UNSC, while China sought to leverage its position to undermine U.S. power, it hardly ever actively brought proposals to the table on resolving the region’s long-standing disputes.
China’s growing economy and quest for resources necessitated a change in its approach. It has established energy ties with several Arab countries. It is invested heavily in construction projects in the Peninsula. It is engaged (albeit uneasily so) in negotiations on the Iran nuclear issue, while it clandestinely pursued to build up Saudi Arabia’s nuclear deterrent via its friend, Pakistan. While China today is engaged in the Middle East on several levels, its motivation is primarily economic, and its relations, nascent.
Therein lies the difference between India and China. India’s engagement with the Middle East goes beyond the economic (although, arguably, energy security today is India’s chief motivator). India’s historical cultural ties with the region have allowed it to engage with several, often warring factions in the Middle East without being drawn into zero-sum equations in the region. Even where economic ties are concerned, India and China differ, with India having contributed substantially to the Peninsula’s human capital.
While India’s cultural ties with Iran are well publicized, it has also maintained enduring cultural and economic ties with Arab countries. These ties are the reason why a 350-year old Shiva temple stands at the outskirts of Muscat, why over a million Indians live and work in the U.A.E., and why India is Egypt’s fourth-largest trading partner. That India has managed to maintain its ties with Arab countries, while also developing strong ties with Israel is a rare success for Indian foreign policy. Belly dancing on a tightrope can’t be easy. And this is something that puts it at an advantage over Beijing in the Middle East.
This is not to suggest that the scope for adjustments in foreign policy, when required by national interest, does not exist. India’s relations with Iran, for example, have come under stress recently, with New Delhi’s decision to support U.N. sanctions, twice, against Iran and with its decision to launch Israel’s spy satellite, Polaris. However, none of these changes will alter the nature of China or India’s engagement with the region. Hopes that either country will offer to share “U.S.’s burden” in the region, therefore, are unrealistic.