Foreign Policy Watch: India-Middle East

New dimension to the bilateral engegement


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Not much

Mains level : Paper 2- Contrasting India and China's engagement with West Asia

The article draws parallels in the past in India and China’s engagement with West Asia and contrasts it with the present approach adopted by China in dealing with the region.

Strategic autonomy

  • According to a former Foreign Secretary of India, Vijay Gokhale, the ideation of ‘strategic autonomy’ is much different from the Nehruvian era thinking of ‘non-alignment’.
  • Speaking in January 2019, Mr. Gokhale said: “The alignment is issue based, and not ideological.”

India’s engagement with West Asia

  • Pre-dating 2020, India’s outreach to West Asia sharpened since 2014.
  •  Oil-rich Gulf states looked at India as investment alternative away from the West to deepen their own strategic depth.
  • India also doubled down on its relations with the likes of Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, giving open economic and political preference to the larger Gulf region.
  • While engagements with Israel moved steadily forward, Iran lagged behind, constrained by U.S. sanctions, which in turn significantly slowed the pace of India-Iran engagements.

China’s engagement with West Asia

  • China’s overtures have been steadily more adventurous as it realises two major shifts that have taken place in West Asia.
  • First, the thinking in the Gulf that the American security safety net is not absolute.
  • Second, the Gulf economies such as Saudi Arabia, even though trying to shift away from petro dollar, will still need growing markets to sell oil to in the coming decade as they reform their economic systems.
  • The obvious two markets here are China and India.

Similarity in India and China’s approach to West Asia

  • Both India and China employed similar versions of ‘non-alignment’ thinking is in West Asia based on equitable engagement with the three poles of power in Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel.
  • Both countries did it without getting involved into the region’s multi-layered conflicts and political fissures.
  • However, deteriorating U.S.-China ties, the COVID-19 pandemic that started in China, followed by the Ladakh crisis, is forcing a drastic change in the geopolitical playbooks of the two Asian giants, and, by association, global security architectures as well.

Changing approach of China

  •  A report in September shone a light on a $400 billion, 25-year understanding between Iran and China, with Beijing taking advantage of abandonment of the Iran nuclear deal.
  • China is no longer happy with a passive role in West Asia, and through concepts such as “negative peace” and “peace through development”.
  • In concert with tools such as the Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing is now ready to offer an alternative model for “investment and influence”.
  •  It remains to be seen, however, how China balances itself between the poles of power while backing one so aggressively.

Stability of the region and opportunity for India

  • From India’s perspective, the overt outreach to the Gulf and the ensuing announcements of multi-billion-dollar investments on Indian shores by entities from Saudi Arabia and the UAE is only New Delhi recognising the economic realities of the region. 
  • Despite entanglements in the Yemen war and general tensions between the Gulf states and Iran, the likes of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and so on have maintained relatively strong and stable economic progression.
  • Israel’s recent peace accords with the UAE and Bahrain add much further weight towards a more stable Gulf region — the caveats withstanding that the operationalisation of the accords is smooth and long-lasting.

Consider the question “Despite turbulence in the region, India’s engagement with West Asia has always been characterised by non-alignment and ethos of equitable engagement. In light of this, elaborate on India’s approach to the region and region’s importance for India.”


While in the recent past, the Indo-Pacific, with the development of the Quad, has taken centre stage, other geographies such as West Asia have also started to showcase bolder examples of New Delhi and Beijing’s metamorphosing approaches towards the international arena.

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