EN­GAG­ING DI­PLO­MACY

New Straits Times - - Opinion - The writer, NST's New Delhi cor­re­spon­dent, is the pres­i­dent of the Com­mon­wealth Jour­nal­ists As­so­ci­a­tion 2016-2018 and a con­sul­tant with ‘Power Pol­i­tics’ monthly mag­a­zine

In­dia has per­sis­tently en­gaged with this im­por­tant West Asian coun­try. In­deed, it has called the re­gion West Asia, and not Mid­dle East, tak­ing the colo­nial sting out.

Given its hos­tile ties with Pak­istan, In­dia has man­aged to de­hy­phen­ate its re­la­tions with Saudi Ara­bia and the United Arab Emi­rates, where three mil­lion In­di­ans each con­trib­ute to those economies.

The num­ber of In­dian work­ers in Saudi Ara­bia rose from 34,500 in 1975 to 1.2 mil­lion in 1999, and 2.96 mil­lion last year. This com­prised al­most half of the 7.3 mil­lion In­di­ans in the Gulf who al­to­gether, de­spite the slump in in­ter­na­tional oil prices, sent US$36 bil­lion (RM158.4 bil­lion) in 2015, 52 per cent of the to­tal re­mit­tances to In­dia an­nu­ally.

In­dia’s eco­nomic growth and its in­creas­ing de­mand for en­ergy made it a ma­jor buyer of Saudi Ara­bia’s crude oil and pe­tro­leum prod­ucts. Eco­nomic fac­tors re­sulted in the first visit by a Saudi monarch to In­dia in five decades in 2006. King Ab­dul­lah had re­called deep his­tor­i­cal ties and that he looked upon In­dia as his “sec­ond home”.

Amidst shared con­cerns, there is also shar­ing of re­sources as In­dian uni­ver­si­ties and hos­pi­tals open up to peo­ple from West Asia. It has not been easy but post-cold war, In­dia stopped view­ing West Asia through the prism of its is­sues with Pak­istan (which the lat­ter con­tin­ues), stopped the strong rhetoric de­nounc­ing other coun­tries’poli­cies, and aban­doned de­fen­sive, re­ac­tive pol­icy ap­proaches.

In­dia also started con­sciously court­ing the United States that deeply in­flu­ences the re­gion and be­gan to reach out to all West Asians on the ba­sis of mu­tual ben­e­fit.

In par­tic­u­larly au­da­cious diplo­matic moves in De­cem­ber 1991, In­dia re­versed its ear­lier vote in the United Na­tions that had equated Zion­ism with racism.

But only af­ter per­son­ally ob­tain­ing Pales­tinian Lib­er­a­tion Or­gan­i­sa­tion chair­man Yasser Arafat’s full con­cur­rence, Narasimha Rao es­tab­lished full diplo­matic re­la­tions with Is­rael in Jan­uary 1992, dis­re­gard­ing strong do­mes­tic crit­i­cism.

The re­la­tion­ship has flour­ished and now, Modi is set to be the first In­dian premier to visit Is­rael later this year. Is­rael is al­ready the third largest sup­plier of de­fence hard­ware and soft­ware.

Schol­arly Narasimha Rao got on well with Iran’s pres­i­dent Ali Ak­bar Hashemi Raf­san­jani. As then Ira­nian for­eign min­is­ter Ali Ak­bar Ve­lay­ati fre­quently met Rao, the foun­da­tion for a broad­based and mu­tu­ally ad­van­ta­geous bi­lat­eral re­la­tion­ship that evolved sur­vived long years of Amer­i­can sanc­tions on Iran.

In­dia has man­aged to keep all of these di­verse re­la­tion­ships on a pos­i­tive track de­spite po­lit­i­cal ob­sta­cles.

Since the tur­moil in West Asia gath­ered force in 2011, In­dia has stuck to the prin­ci­ple that regime change through for­eign in­ter­ven­tion con­sti­tutes a vi­o­la­tion of in­ter­na­tional norms and law.

It has as­sid­u­ously avoided tak­ing sides in any of the re­gion’s ri­val­ries or con­flicts. Yet, it has sup­ported all ef­forts to de­feat the Is­lamic State as well as UN diplo­matic ini­tia­tives aimed at ne­go­ti­ated set­tle­ment of con­flicts.

Pos­i­tive mo­men­tum in In­dia’s re­la­tions with its West Asian coun­ter­parts has been sus­tained de­spite the po­lit­i­cal tur­moil and vi­o­lence that has con­vulsed the re­gion.

Modi’s vis­its to the UAE, Saudi Ara­bia, Iran and Qatar be­tween Au­gust 2015 and June last year took place amid wars in Syria and Ye­men, in which these coun­tries were deeply in­volved.

De­spite sharply dif­fer­ing per­cep­tions re­gard­ing the cur­rent con­flicts in West Asia be­tween In­dia and these coun­tries, the lead­ers have not al­lowed this to af­fect their bi­lat­eral re­la­tions.

The wa­ter­shed came with the 2008 ter­ror at­tacks in Mum­bai. The Gulf Co­op­er­a­tion Coun­cil (GCC) coun­tries strongly and un­equiv­o­cally con­demned, though with­out ex­plic­itly nam­ing, Pak­istan.

Since then, how­ever, Saudi Ara­bia and the UAE, in par­tic­u­lar, have pro­vided ex­cel­lent and ex­pand­ing anti-ter­ror­ism co­op­er­a­tion, some of it away from me­dia glare, by repa­tri­at­ing In­di­ans wanted for ter­ror­ist ac­tiv­i­ties within In­dia.

Ran­jit Gupta, re­tired In­dian diplo­mat and West Asia an­a­lyst, says: “no ma­jor power has the kind of peo­ple-to-peo­ple so­cio­cul­tural com­pat­i­bil­ity and so­cioe­co­nomic in­ter­de­pen­dence with coun­tries of the Gulf, par­tic­u­larly with GCC coun­tries that In­dia has. Ex­cept for con­tin­u­ing OIC ac­tivism, mainly on Kash­mir, there are no bi­lat­er­ally con­tentious po­lit­i­cal is­sues be­tween In­dia and the GCC coun­tries”.

Proud of be­ing the world’s largest democ­racy, In­dia does not be­lieve in the busi­ness of for­eign coun­tries im­pos­ing forms of gov­ern­ment on other coun­tries.

In­deed, In­dia be­lieves that GCC Sheikhdoms, Gupta says, “are a fac­tor of sta­bil­ity, fully in keep­ing with the cus­toms, ethos and tra­di­tions of the Ara­bian Penin­sula”.

AP PIC

In­dian Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi look­ing on as Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan signs a vis­i­tor’s book in New Delhi dur­ing his two-day visit to In­dia re­cently.

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