India’s Defence Outreach Towards A Fast-Changing West Asia – Analysis
By Observer Research Foundation
By Kabir Taneja*
The political collapse in Sudan over the past two weeks has once again mobilised the Indian armed forces to evacuate citizens stuck in Khartoum as violence spilt over into the streets. Both the Indian Air Force and Indian Navy were deployed to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia and directly to the coast of Sudan as evacuation efforts gained steam.
The Sudan crisis is, of course, not the first where evacuation of citizens from war-torn geographies has come upfront as a critical aim of the armed forces. Evacuation operations have been a feature from the time of the First Gulf War in the early 1990s to Operation Rahat in Yemen in 2015. With more than 7.5 million Indians living and working in the extended Middle East (West Asia) region, the task of trying to manage a small country-like population spread across multiple sovereign states is not an easy ask.
The Middle East is one place where, along with diplomacy, military cooperation is also being steadily developed as the region becomes even more important for the Indian economy, security, and diaspora alike. From staging visits by the Indian Air Force in Saudi Arabia and Egypt to port calls by Indian Navy warships, including submarines, in Oman and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), amongst others—this shows a growing intent for more strategic engagement with the region, particularly the Arab states.
Military engagements offer a multi-layered outreach to a fast-evolving geopolitical situation. This is especially important as the region becomes one of the most active theatres of big power competition meeting middle-power pragmatism and regional power tussles, giving way to an increased chance of political and military volatility. The Strait of Hormuz, one of the most critical bodies of water for global energy security, has always been a significant part of overall strategic thinking for not only regional countries but for others such as India as well, as a large percentage of global oil supply floats through this narrow waterway. The Strait is not international waters, but territorial waters shared between Iran and Oman. Its alternative in the Red Sea, the Bab-al-Mandab Strait, was also brought under an umbrella of conflict as the Yemen crisis spiralled with Saudi Arabia and Iran indirectly fighting against each other.
India has a history to learn from when it comes to protecting diasporic and strategic interests in the region having previously been caught in crossfires many times, specifically across the Gulf of Oman. In October 1984, the Indian oil tanker Jag Pari on its way to Kuwait—owned by Great Eastern Shipping based in Mumbai (then called Bombay)—was allegedly attacked by Iranian fighter jets as the Iran–Iraq war spilt over. Tehran denied such claims, and then Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was blamed for continuous aggression against this critical waterway. Again, in January 1985, the Indian-flagged oil tanker Kanchenjunga was reportedly struck by Iranian jets damaging its bridge as it carried over 1.4 million barrels of oil out of Saudi Arabia.
Fast forward to 2019, and a similar situation brewed once again in the same geography. However, unlike the 1980s when India’s capabilities and capacities were very limited, this time the Indian Navy was tasked with shadowing oil tankers carrying crucial crude supplies to the subcontinent. Operation Sankalp saw Indian warships provide security to 16 Indian-flagged vessels daily as the waterways once again became a battleground, this time as tensions between the United States (US) and Iran flared up.
The Indian frigate, INS Talwar, took the lead role in patrolling the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf of Oman giving reassurances to both Indian security interests and Indian personnel manning merchant ships in the region. The mission, now in its third year of operations, is an extension of India’s anti-piracy operations across Africa’s eastern coast and the Gulf of Aden since 2008. The past two decades have showcased India designing a notable stake in the security of the Arabian Sea spreading into the Indian Ocean with steady cooperation with partners such as the US, particularly the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet stationed in Bahrain.
To develop the above, New Delhi’s concoction of using the armed forces as a valuable tool for diplomacy is a smart way to court influence in a region where the visibility of uniforms is an important signal to highlight the level of seriousness a partner state is showing in developing strategic ties. The Indian Navy has conducted port calls across Arab states, Iran, and Israel alike, to maintain both a level of strategic neutrality while engaging with all stakeholders, with one of the aims being to develop off-ramps in case of larger regional conflicts.
For the above aim, one of India’s prime partners has been Oman. The sultanate has, over the years, attempted to position itself as a Switzerland of sorts for the Middle East on the back of the level of neutrality it manages to maintain. While New Delhi, today, is part of multiple military exercises in the region, many having come up over the past decade, India–Oman bilateral military exercises first started in 1993.
Exercise Naseem Al Bahr, which took place in November 2022 off the coast of Oman, was the 30th year of bilateral exercises between the Indian Navy and the Royal Navy of Oman. The development of facilities at Duqm Port on the Omani coast with the intention of building maintenance, overhaul and replenishment infrastructure capacities for Indian Navy ships also highlights New Delhi’s intentions to operate more institutionalised facilities that would operate below the thresholds of setting up a traditional offshore military base.
Meanwhile, the incoming competition between China and the US is already at play. While much of the narrative is that of China entering a power vacuum in the Middle East left behind by a nonchalant US, in reality, regional powers such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and even Iran are inviting Beijing in to counter-balance the traditional designs of the American security umbrella and hedge their demands for military cooperation, manage deliverables on issues such as human rights, and use Chinese presence to message that alternatives now exist.
For India, the military posturing is going to slowly feed into the US-led security ecosystem. This has both its positives and negatives. In May 2022, India joined as an associate member of the US-backed counterterror coalition called Combined Military Forces–Bahrain (CMF-B), tasked with protecting international waters. The more important aspect of India joining the CMF-B was that it was announced on the sidelines of the second Quad summit in Tokyo after being negotiated at the India–US 2+2 dialogue. Both mechanisms are not directly related to India’s Middle East policies but are more in tune with India’s overall strategic thinking and, perhaps, more importantly, reorientation.
*About the author: Kabir Taneja is a Fellow with Strategic Studies programme. His research focuses on India’s relations with West Asia, specifically looking at the domestic political dynamics, terrorism, non-state militant actors and the general security paradigm of the region.
Source: This article was published by Observer Research Foundation