Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced in July 2005 a “Look West” policy
In a curious departure from standard practice the Government of India agreed to sign on to what has been called the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC). The external affairs ministry’s longstanding term for the region west of India has been West Asia. The reference to the “Middle East” suggests that the initiative was American. It need not have been. The regional signatories to this agreement, namely India, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have not just adequate resources among themselves, but long-standing historical trading links for them to have implemented this sea-land connectivity project, along with the European Union, on their own.
The United States did not even exist when Indians, Arabs and Europeans were busily trading among themselves across this space, from the ports of the Indian peninsula through the deserts of Arabia and on to the ports of southern Europe. By placing its stamp on the corridor project, the United States has merely asserted its geopolitical interest. The geo-economic roots of this sea-land link run deep into history.
Historians have long reminded us of the Indian sub-continent’s trade links with West Asia and Europe, spanning all the way from the ports of the Konkan to the markets of Venice. Every time I hosted a visitor to Hyderabad who would want to buy pearls, I would ask if the person ever wondered why landlocked Hyderabad is famous for pearls. Few ask themselves this question as they head to the city’s pearl shops. The answer lies in the trading links between the Deccan and the Gulf, from where Bahraini and Iraqi pearls, and the famous Basra pearls, were shipped for sale in the markets of opulent Hyderabad.
The trade ebbed and flowed with time but declined rapidly after Independence when India chose to pursue a more inward-oriented development model that neglected trade opportunities. The opening up of the Indian economy in 1991 by Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao was initially followed up by what has come to be known as the “Look East” policy.
Within a decade after India chose to “Look East”, India’s trade with the countries of East and Southeast Asia more than doubled. By 2001, the trade with this region, including the countries of the Asean bloc, China, Japan and South Korea, exceeded India’s trade with the European Union.
Having observed the success of the Look East policy, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced in July 2005 a “Look West” policy, with a focus on West Asia, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Oman, Kuwait and Bahrain. A meeting of what was called the Trade and Economic Relations Committee (TERC), chaired by the Prime Minister, and including the Cabinet ministers for external affairs, commerce, industry, finance, agriculture and the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, authorised the launch of free trade negotiations between India and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
The Prime Minister noted at the time that the India-West Asia relationship was built not just on the more recent post-war and post-Cold War relationships, but on ancient economic and cultural links, on the one hand, and a new forward-looking equation with the region, on the other. The launch of negotiations for an India-GCC free trade agreement would only be a starting point. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told members of the TERC: “The Gulf region, like Southeast Asia and South Asia, is part of our natural economic hinterland. We must pursue closer economic relations with all our neighbours in our wider Asian neighbourhood. India has successfully pursued a ‘Look East’ policy to come closer to the countries of Southeast Asia. We must, similarly, come closer to our western neighbours in the Gulf.”
This trade policy initiative was followed up with Prime Minister Singh inviting King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia as chief guest at the 2006 Republic Day parade. In the months that followed, the Indian Navy launched its own “Look West Policy” of increased maritime engagement of the Gulf states, recalling the longstanding maritime links that the subcontinent had with the Gulf. Defence relations were established between India, Oman and Saudi Arabia, with then defence minister A.K. Antony becoming the first Indian defence minister to travel to Riyadh in 2012.
After the East Asian and Southeast Asian economies emerged as India’s biggest trade partners, overtaking Europe and the United States, the GCC countries followed suit, with the UAE and Saudi Arabia emerging as major trade partners. Apart from the economic dimension to both these outreach efforts, there has always been a strategic dimension which has now become the focus of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s new and important initiative, IMEC. Prime Minister Modi deserves compliments for his vigorous follow-up of P.V. Narasimha Rao’s “Look East”, with his own “Act East” initiatives, and now this follow-through of Dr Manmohan Singh’s “Look West” with very robust “Act West” initiatives.
However, while India has always taken pride in having its own equation with its wider Asian neighbourhood, an impression has now gained ground that in many regional foreign policy initiatives taken by India, the United States somehow manages to cast its shadow. If India’s relations with East Asia are being shaped by US-led frameworks such as the “Quad”, relations with West Asia are being placed within initiatives like the U2I2 (United States, UAE, India and Israel) and IMEC. It is not clear why India should appear as if the United States is chaperoning it around its own neighbourhood.
I had many opportunities to interact with the representatives of the Gulf states during my tenure at the International Institute of Strategic Affairs, having an office located in Bahrain. Every so often I would be told by my Arab interlocutors how they preferred their region to be referred to as West Asia rather than the Middle East. Some dismiss this sentiment as an obsession with terminology. It is not. India has a view of the world from where it is located.
Its economic and cultural links in all four directions go long back into history. One does not expect a government of the Bharatiya Janata Party to so easily replace West Asia with Middle East in what is clearly an important strategic outreach.