By Komal Khan
The ‘I2U2’ first leaders’ summit held between the India, Israel, the U.S., and UAE marked construction of the security architecture in West Asia that stretches from the Strait of Malacca to the Suez Canal to create a balance of power in the tri-polar West Asian region by incorporation of India as a balancer and an extra-regional manager.
Abraham Accords 2020, signed between the Arab States with the UAE in lead and Israel, extended forth normalization and partnership agreements between Israel and extra-regional medium powers; particularly within the domain of defence and military technology, and economic connectivity; under new power dynamics. India is the primary facilitator and beneficiary of this ongoing US-led strategic engineering called the minilateralism. Minilateralism is the strategic alignment wherein issue-specific partnerships are developed as deterrents to the transitioning multilateralism in the world order.
Previously, world order had Capitalism at its core; presently, its democracy. In the transforming world order, democracies have been engaged to form a security network by collaborating in non-security issues. Therefore, I2U2 also indicates security framework by taking into account six non-security domains of cooperation that include energy, space, transportation, food security, water, and health.
India’s nominated identity as the largest democracy in the world, despite human rights subjugation to religio-politic extremism, fixes it as the policing state for the U.S. under bilateral bargaining of relative interests in strategically significant regional theatres in the Indian Ocean that include South Asia, the West Asia with the Middle East in particular, the coast of East Africa, and the islands in the Indian Ocean in from East (Sri Lanka) to the West (Comoros Archipelago). Notably, India is a member of six out of nine mililaterals for defense and security cooperation from 2016 to 2021. They include India-France-Australia Trilateral Dialogue 2020; Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) 2017; Australia-Japan- India (AJI) Trilateral 2015; India -Italy- Japan Trilateral 2021; Australia-India- Indonesia Trilateral 2017; and Japan-US-India 2018. India’s membership in such multilateral forums, particularly in defense and security, deputizes India with decision making authority even if India lacks it in international forums such as UNSC or NSG.
Meeting the purpose of the I2U2, India and the UAE are assigned to function as the U.S. associate for building regional consensus on de-factor engagements with Israel, thereby impacting the Palestinian and Iranian interests based on their non-engagement with the U.S.-led medium power partnerships. I2U2 is similar to the minilateral partnership in the Indio-Pacific like the QUAD, which weights balance of power in favour of the democratic block and the U.S. by building consensus towards international treaties such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas which the U.S., otherwise, would not have been able to maintain since it is a non-signatory of the treaty.
Therefore, India in the Indian Ocean, and now in the West Asia has assumed the charge of one of the U.S. facilitators in promoting its policy of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific and the Freedom of Navigation, particularly with respect to the Strait of Harmuz that is the transit route to 30% of the total oil trade in the world. In June 2019, Indian navy initiated maritime security operations named ‘SANKALP’ in Gulf in order to ensure India’s safe transiting through the Strait of Hormuz and also indicates Indian military’s strategic presence, however, not deployment, in the West Asia. Notably, India fulfills nearly 80% of its oil needs through oil imports.
India’s approach as an international manager for the U.S. in the Middle East benefits India with the assertion of Indian strategic autonomy beyond South Asia. Moreover, it is in line with India’s global ambitions. I2U2 also provides India with military footprints in the Middle East. Significantly, it assures India’s economic and energy security and protects Indian diaspora in the Gulf.
I2U2 is expected to add into Indian economy in the long term through autonomous economic agreements on India’s terms rather than the terms defined by the multilateral economic forums such as the RECP. Immediate economic effect of the partnership is an investment of two billion dollar and provision of technology for agriculture; and financial support for renewable energy in the states of Madhya Pradesh and Gujrat. India and UAE have also entered into a free trade agreement under the emerging partnership to increase their bilateral trade from fifty-nine billion dollars to one-hundred billion dollars till 2027.
I2U2 gives India access to Israel’s advanced defense technologies. Due to Israel being the major defense technology supplier to India that witnessed a significant 175% of increase in arms imports between 2015-2019 under Modi, I2U2 signals substantial buildup of India’s defense and military technology, therefore, contributes to strategic imbalance in South Asia. The U.S. holds responsibility for providing Israel with India as a substitute to China as a potential buyer of Israel’s arms because since 1990s, the U.S. has been vetoing Israel’s arms trade with China. Israel’s surveillance and operational capabilities have been used by India in the Kashmir and on LOC and LAC against Pakistan and China. Amidst India-China military standoff 2021, Israel leased Heron drones were deployed on the LAC.
As far as Indian military deployment in the West Asia is concerned, Indian military projection beyond Asia is compromised to India’s strategic rivalry in South Asia at two fronts that is China and Pakistan. Even in case of QUAD, India is reluctant to engage militarily with the U.S. because it cannot afford a confrontation with China and Pakistan when it aims to pursue its economic ambitions and global level. India would only resort to military option in the Indian Ocean that serves India’s vital national interests. Other primary factors that would determine India’s calculated engagement in West Asia would be India’s escape from deliberate strategic rivalry with Iran in the Strait of Harmuz and, specifically, with China in the proximity of Djibouti and Bab-el-Mandeb.
However, India in the I2U2 is a cause of concern for the regional states in South and East Asia because this partnership strategically benefits India by filling it in as an international stakeholder in the strategic maritime theaters in the world that include the Red Sea, the Mediterranean Sea, the Arabian Sea, the Horn of Africa and the Indian Ocean.
*The writer is working as a Research Officer at the Strategic Vision Institute (SVI), a non-partisan think-tank based out of Islamabad, Pakistan. Her areas of research include Indo-Pacific security and international strategic competition.*