India's Defence Diplomacy in the Gulf

May 27, 2011
Event: 
Fellows' Seminar

Chairperson: Lt Gen Satish Nambiar (Retd)
Discussants: Commodore M R Khan (Retd) and Shri Gulshan Luthra

Dr. P.K. Pradhan’s paper focused on the topic of India’s defence diplomacy in the Gulf, with existing relations between India and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries as the basis for the study. Pradhan has illustrated in this study that although India’s defence diplomacy with the Gulf region has a long history, it was consolidated by recent events including the September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, and piracy activity in the Arabian Sea. India has numerous commonalities with the GCC countries, with both being connected by the Arabian Sea, rendering the security of the sea and the Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC) significant areas for mutual cooperation. Other areas of cooperation include countering illegal activities such as smuggling of arms, supply of narcotics and drugs, and movement of criminal elements in the sea. Defence diplomacy initiatives have included high-level defence-related visits and dialogue on security challenges, port calls, and defence cooperation in the form of training exchanges, combined exercises, and sourcing, development, production and marketing of defence equipment.

The Gulf region, Pradhan argues, is also of strategic importance for India for other reasons:

  • India-GCC trade amounts to over USD 84 billion. The GCC countries are a lucrative market for Indian goods such as textiles, spices, other food products, electrical goods and machineries, and IT products.
  • The Gulf region supplies around two-thirds of India’s total energy requirements.
  • The Indian diaspora comprising around 5 million people: protecting the interests of Indian workers in the region has been an important area of focus in bilateral relations.
  • India’s long-term energy security could be dependent on Iranian oil and gas reserves (Iran has the second and third largest proven gas and oil reserves respectively in the world). India’s trade with Iran amounted to USD 13.39 billion in 2009-2010. Possible future sectors of mutual investment include oil and gas, steel, fertilizers, infrastructure and railways. Iran is also significant in terms of providing India with an access route to Afghanistan and Central Asia, and for cooperation on maritime security.
  • The GCC countries see India as an important partner in tackling terrorism in their respective regions; defence cooperation agreements have been signed with the UAE, Oman and Qatar.

Pradhan points out that India has established defence ties with several GCC states:

  1. Oman: India and Oman signed a military protocol in 1972, which led to a three- year deputation of Indian Navy personnel to man Oman’s Navy in 1973. A MoU on defence cooperation was signed between India and Oman in 2005. Areas of cooperation include joint military exercises, military training and IT, educational courses and programmes, exchange of observers and formal visits. Currently, a two-tier arrangement for defence cooperation – Joint Military Cooperation Committee (JMCC) and Air Force-to-Air Force Staff Talks (AFST) - exists with Oman.
  2. UAE: India signed a defence cooperation agreement with the UAE in 2003 that will focus bilateral cooperation on military training, cooperation in military medical services and jointly combating pollution caused by the military at sea. Regular naval exercises take place between India and the UAE.
  3. Saudi Arabia: India and Saudi Arabia have not yet signed any agreement on defence cooperation, though the Delhi Declaration signed in 2006 forms the basis for security cooperation. Joint naval exercises in addition to joint exercises between the Indian Army and Royal Saudi Land Force are also being planned.
  4. Iran: India-Iran relations have been shaped by political relations between the two countries as well as by the role of the United States in the region. India signed a MoU on defence cooperation with Iran in 2001. The New Delhi Declaration signed in 2003 laid further emphasis on defence cooperation in areas including training and mutual visits. The Declaration also laid focus on cooperation on sea-lane control and security, joint naval exercises, Indian assistance in upgrading Iran’s Russian-made defence systems and establishment of joint working groups on counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics. India’s vote against Iran at the IAEA in 2005 has hindered further strengthening of defence cooperation.
  5. Qatar: India signed defence cooperation and security and law enforcement agreements with Qatar in 2008. These agreements focus on cooperation on issues including terrorism, piracy, maritime security, money laundering, narcotics and transnational crimes. These agreements are significant also because it gives the Indian Navy access to operate in the region to ensure security of sea lanes. Qatar has also participated in courses at the National Defence College (NDC) in India, and has expressed interest in participating in additional training courses.

On initiatives in strengthening cooperation between India and the Gulf countries, Pradhan notes that the Indian Navy has played a significant role in the form of “Naval Diplomacy”. As defined by the Indian Ministry of Defence, “Naval Diplomacy entails the use of naval forces in support of foreign policy objectives to build ‘bridges of friendship’ and strengthen international cooperation on one hand, and to signal capability and intent to deter potential adversaries on the other. The larger purpose of the Navy’s diplomatic role is to favorably shape the maritime environment in the furtherance of national interests, in consonance of the foreign policy and national security objectives.” Pradhan points out that naval cooperation is also a significant area of military-to-military cooperation in its capacity to secure SLOCs and build ties through maritime bonding. India has been very proactive in engaging with navies of the GCC countries in the form of joint exercises, port calls, goodwill visits to ports, and training programmes.

In his view, specific defence diplomacy initiatives taken to achieve Indian foreign policy objectives have included:

  • Collaborating against piracy
  • Safety of SLOC
  • Securing choke points in the western Indian Ocean
  • Dealing with China in the Indian Ocean
  • Curtailing Pakistan’s influence in the Gulf
  • Building security cooperation with GCC countries
  • Strengthening India’s strategic interests in the Gulf region

Pradhan concludes that India’s engagement with the Gulf countries has been driven by its security and strategic needs in the region, including furthering its economic and political objectives. He notes that there is a need to build on existing defence ties and forge new ties with other countries in the region. Growing insecurity in India, the Gulf region and the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea demand greater levels of engagement on crucial issues such as piracy, terrorism, maritime terrorism, and safety of the SLOC.

The discussion that followed focused on several different aspects of this topic.

  • A participant pointed out that there are limitations on the extent of India’s defence cooperation with the Gulf countries, owing mainly to the United States’ wariness in supporting any deep and wide-ranging agreements between any other countries and the GCC states, and the low likelihood that Gulf countries such as the UAE will buy Indian defence equipment.
  • Iran remains an important partner for India, despite irritants such as gas prices and the 2005 IAEA vote; India must balance its relationship with Iran and the United States. Another country that India should initiate defence cooperation with is Iraq, especially now that the country is focused on reconstruction following the 2003 invasion, and with its increasing reengagement with the rest of the Gulf region.
  • It was emphasized that India has recognized the need for stronger defence cooperation with the region; it is important to note that the GCC countries have been very receptive to initiatives taken in the past to advance mutual engagement, though Indian diplomacy in the Gulf region might be in need of more “warmth” in bilateral interactions.
  • Another participant pointed out that the study did not touch upon the crucial issue of the Indian diaspora in the Gulf region. It is important for the Indian government to establish agreements on, for instance, access to ports, for evacuation purposes in the event of developments such as the recent uprisings in the region.
  • One of the questions posed was how the Gulf countries would react to a conflict between India and China – would they balance between the two, or which side would they take?
  • One recommendation made was for the need to explore why India’s Look West policy has not been as successful as its Look East policy.
  • The maritime dimension has to be the main factor in defence diplomacy between India and the GCC countries.
  • A participant recommended that more emphasis should be placed on China’s involvement in the Gulf region and its cooperation with countries such as Saudi Arabia, and the effects of this involvement on India’s ties with these countries. It was observed that there has been no Indian strategy to counter China’s increasing outreach in the diplomatic and military arenas in the Gulf region.

Report prepared by Princy George, Research Assistant, IDSA