Nearly three decades after Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao broke from the past and normalised relations with Israel in January 1992, India is taking a major step in framing the Jewish state within its larger Middle East policy. Until now, the South Bloc factored Israel in its policy vis-a-vis Washington. However, during his five-day visit to Israel this month, External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar laid the foundations for a larger regional approach with Israel as a pivot, through a virtual meeting with his American, Emirati and Israeli counterparts. Already there are suggestions that the ‘minilateral’ could include like-minded countries like Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan and France.
The new and mini Quad (comprising India, Israel, the UAE and the US) is innovative, non-confrontationist and hence will be enduring. The other one comprising Australia, India, Japan and the US, the seeds of which were sown in 2007, is hampered by a host of security challenges. These countries were brought together primarily due to their concerns vis-a-vis Chinese strategic ascendance, and the Quad faced a host of political and economic hurdles. With China as their largest trading partner, none have the luxury of being openly anti-Beijing. Opposition to China being the common (if not the only) unifier presented a negative view of the Quad. Moreover, when the US needed a stronger framework, it settled for AUKUS without any prior notification or consultation with other members of Quad.
Two, the new Middle Eastern Quad is different and will be more challenging for India than the Indo-Pacific one. It will not be a talk shop like others where India is a member. Besides the hype and photo ops, what were the tangible gains for India? Statements and declarations are not a substitute for deliverables. The new Quad is framed as an economic forum, akin to the ASEAN in its earliest stages. Initial reports highlight cooperation in infrastructure, trade, technology, health and big data aimed at economic growth. Even cooperation in maritime security would involve freedom of navigation for all littoral and non-littoral states, and ensuring safe passage for oil and non-oil cargo, especially in the Persian Gulf region.
Three, unlike the Indo-Pacific Quad, the Middle Eastern one does not appear to be aimed at any particular country, ideology or group. There is no one to gang up against. Though Iran could be a concern for some, others do not see Tehran as an existential threat. While there would be a greater exchange of ideas, some would not sign up with Israel for an aggressive posture or actions. Both the UAE and India have reasons to develop stronger ties with Iran, while the Biden administration is less virulent on Iran than its predecessor. However, there is an unintended benefit; since the mini-Quad enhances New Delhi’s regional importance, Iran would have to accommodate India in its Afghan policy.
Four, since economic cooperation is the prime focus, the Quad will not progress only on the shoulders of the Ministry of External Affairs. The economic wing within embassies (introduced in the mid-1990s following economic reforms) will have to be scaled up, and the South Bloc will have to bring in other government and non-government players to fructify the forum. This means more business suits and fewer bandhgalas if this Quad is to succeed. This will not be easy either. If the economy is the driver, then the private sector will also have to scale up their size and imagination. Even three decades after economic liberalisation, their presence beyond the borders is negligible and they still operate mainly as sub-contractors, vendors and suppliers.
Five, Rao’s decision to normalise relations with Israel offered India an opportunity to reshape its Middle East policy. But that it took nearly three decades to happen underscores the regional complexities and India’s inhibitions in pursuing a more assertive policy with Israel. While Prime Minister Modi dehyphenated Israel and Palestine, devising a regional policy on the former had to wait until the Biden administration. Interestingly, Jaishankar’s third visit to Israel in four years began from Abu Dhabi, where he held discussions with the Emirati officials.
And six, this Quad will push India to transform itself. While the US might be more lenient towards Indian stretchable time, Israel and the UAE are impatient countries. Their economic transformation was achieved with greater attention to efficiency, lessening cost and reducing lead-time in deliveries. Their preference for technology and innovation is partly motivated by their ‘wanted-it-yesterday’ mode of operations. India, on the other hand, is eloquent in its promises and miserly in deliverables. Not an ideal partner for the work culture of Israel and the UAE. Hence, the success of the new Middle Eastern Quad rests on India moving away from rhetoric, focusing on the deliverables and hopefully, improving its work culture and efficiency.
P R Kumaraswamy
Professor at JNU. Teaches contemporary Middle East there