Talking about the Asia beyond Pakistan

What does India’s search for a new equilibrium state in its engagement with West Asia imply?

By Pranay Kotasthane (@pranaykotas)

As the “talks about talks” with Pakistan continue to garner more-than-required attention in India, something perhaps more significant is in process with regards to India’s foreign policy — a search for a new metastable state for India’s balancing act in West Asia.

The Syrian Deputy Prime Minister Walid Al Moualem is on a four-day trip to India. Not to forget, Mr Moualem is a part of the Bashar Al-Assad government, which is fighting a war on multiple fronts with multiple adversaries in the region. This visit precedes the Indian External Affairs Minister’s visit to Israel and Palestine planned later in the week, which will further set the stage for a visit by Prime Minister Modi to the region in the near future.

These developments immediately lead us to the questions — how does India see itself in West Asia? Is there a change in the way this government is approaching its relationship with the countries in the region?

To answer these questions one needs to first look at the complex canvas that West Asia is. A mosaic chart titled “Grid of Grievances” in The Economist offers some insight into the complexities of the region.

Mosaic Chart of West Asia relationships. Source: The Economist

Mosaic Chart of West Asia relationships. Source: The Economist

As is evident from the graphic, there is no single nation-state in the mosaic that has friendly or for that matter, even neutral relations with all the other geopolitical actors in the region. Even the external actors in the region such as Russia, US and the European states find it difficult to maintain friendly relations with all the states in West Asia.

This challenge of the complex geopolitical environment is exactly the challenge that India will have to manoeuvre as it steps up engagement in the region. The silver lining in all the complexity is that if India were to be mapped on this graphic, it would perhaps be the only state that maintains a non-adversarial relationship with every West Asian state.

However, that does not make the situation comfortable, far away from it.  This outcome is partly a function of the fact that India has kept itself at an arm’s distance away from virtually every state in West Asia, in the fear that building relations with one will come at a direct cost of alienating several others. Thus by following a safe-distance approach, India now maintains decent collaborations in the region. The implication is that it has thus far allowed all the collaborations in West Asia to settle at a low level equilibrium, with none of them taking the form of a strategic partnership. As India tries to scale these local maxima, the geopolitical environment is bound to throw up new challenges and tough choices.

A glimpse of these challenges were on display earlier in the year, after it was announced that Narendra Modi will be visiting Israel, making such a visit the first ever by an Indian PM. This news immediately filtered through the mosaic of West Asia and the visit has since been put under suspended animation.

As India looks to increase its footprint in West Asia and across the world, India will not only have to balance against other countries, but also bandwagon with some others. And no where in the world, as the Grid of Grievances shows, such choices are tougher than in West Asia.

Pranay Kotasthane is a Research Fellow at The Takshashila Institution. He is on twitter @pranaykotas