India’s floundering engagement with Iran has hit yet another bump in the road, China's involved and Israel could be a prime beneficiary. The whole story could, and should, trigger New Delhi to rethink one of its most characteristic, but superannuated, foreign policy assumptions: that sitting on the fence is better than taking sides.
A few days ago, Iran decided to go ahead alone on the billion-dollar 628 km-long railway line running from its Chabahar port to Zahedan, following what Tehran alleged were delays in funding and implementation from the Indian side.
The rail line was supposed to be part of a massive infrastructure effort ushering in a new era for relations between India, Iran and Afghanistan, alongside whose border the train line runs, and a strategic economic boon for Delhi, cutting logistics costs while isolating Pakistan.
Iran has complained about delays in funding from New Delhi many times in the past, but there was a new factor at play this time: Around the same time the controversy erupted, China inked a strategic partnership deal with Iran to the tune of $400 billion. And analysts in New Delhi began to ponder immediately over whether Beijing had anything to do with the hiccup in Chabahar.
These are not unfounded concerns. If Chinese influence is indeed derailing India’s engagement with Iran, it wouldn’t be the first time that Beijing has managed to poach an Indian ally away by luring them with hard cash.
But is China, India’s prime rival (and with whom it has recently come into limited military conflict), the only cause of the drift between Delhi and Tehran?
New Delhi has struggled to hold on to its influence in South Asia for years, owing to the asymmetric competition with Beijing’s deep pockets.
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Take Sri Lanka, for instance: The Hambantota port – which thanks to a signed agreement is now China’s for almost a century – was first offered to Indian investors before Beijing swooped in. But as former Indian foreign secretary Shivshankar Menon admitted a few years ago, "Indian companies said no." Shortly afterwards, in 2012, the Maldivian government cancelled a contract with India worth almost half a billion dollars, just as China was stepping up its own investment in that country.
Yet, while it has understandably struggled to compete with Beijing’s humongous spending capacity, India has not been able to compete with China politically either. Unlike Beijing, New Delhi does not provide political backup to countries where it is competing with China for influence.
In Sri Lanka, while the port was being constructed, China became a steadfast voice of support for then-president Mahinda Rajapaksa, as he cracked down on Tamil nationalism. Meanwhile, India dilly-dallied and contradicted its own voting positions on Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council year after year.
Similarly, on Iran, while China and Russia have consistently stood in support of Tehran’s political positions, India has sat on the fence. Days before signing the $400 billion deal with Iran, China criticized the United States for its "illegal unilateral sanctions" on Iran. India has never issued any such statements. Whereas China is willing to weaponize its diplomacy on behalf of economic partners, India holds back.
New Delhi’s fence-sitting diplomacy is a considerable hurdle in cultivating allies. While India believes that it is wise to stay away from trading political support for economic ties, this approach has proven to be naïve.
In many ways, the root of this problem lies in India’s non-alignment policy, to which Delhi is now struggling to adhere. India continues to try and play all sides: but nowhere is this more clearly unsustainable than in the Middle East, where India is still attempting to balance its relationship with Iran with closer ties to Israel in the region and to the U.S. globally.
That non-alignment has long been held up as a virtue by analysts in New Delhi, who claim that it increases India’s chances of benefitting from multiple allies. But by trying to be friends with sworn enemies in different parts of the world, India has ended up forcing itself to stay silent on issues that matter to them.
This has had two consequences: First, India has made itself irrelevant to the political interests of those other countries and has hence limited its own influence.
Second – and more critically – it has forced nascent allies to hedge their bets, because they don't know when India might flip on them. A rising power that can swing the see-saw on critical international decisions either way, India’s strategic lack of clarity, or non-committal silence, is seen as a sign of an unreliable and dangerous ally.
India’s fence-sitting has been made more untenable in recent times, owing to its unavoidable involvement in the geopolitical rivalry between the U.S. and China. Beijing’s (largely correct) assessment is that there is an increased convergence of interests between India and the U.S.
China’s increased military presence in the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea is a threat to them both, as is the role of Chinese companies in building critical telecoms infrastructure. Even in global governance, New Delhi and Washington weigh similar calculations.
Regardless of how India sees itself, China considers India a natural ally of the U.S., which is why as part of its broader geopolitical jostling, Beijing keeps trying to curtail the success of India’s global engagement by poaching its partners.
India’s strategy now should be to build alliances with countries with whom it shares common political and strategic interests – and who would, therefore, be less susceptible to turning on India due to the lure of Chinese money, with which Delhi cannot compete.
That means India has to relinquish its non-aligned stance, and pro-actively build sustained alliances through political support for its allies. The benefits would be bountiful: India would win support for building its own security capabilities, gain political support for its own concerns against countries like China and Pakistan, and achieve increased relevance in global decision-making – the headline objective of Indian foreign policy today.
But making such choices is tough – and especially so in the Middle East, where Chinese competition has now also arrived.
In a perfect world, India would still like to maintain economic ties with all the countries in the region. Importing oil from Iran helps diversify India’s energy dependency away from the Gulf; ties with the Gulf help maintain the interests of India’s massive diaspora in those countries; and the partnership with Israel has for years helped equip and modernize India’s vulnerable defense technology sector.
But a far more realistic, hard-nosed picture of where India’s political and strategic interests lie is now emerging: Towards the U.S. and its allies, and away from China and its allies, including Iran. Indian and American interests are converging in Asia-Pacific. And China’s deep political ties with Iran, and its consequently closer ties with Pakistan, will necessarily pull New Delhi away from Iran – and towards U.S. allies in the region.
This shift is also an opportunity now to find longer-term and deeper strategic compatibility with Israel.
For years, India’s steadfast support for the rights of Palestinians was considered at odds with its strategic ties with Israel. That does not necessarily have to be true. India’s support for human rights in Palestine should be seen as similar to the support given to that cause by liberals and Democrats in the U.S.; it should not preclude New Delhi’s support for Israel’s own rights to sovereignty and security – a policy that now has strong bipartisan support in India.
The thaw in Israel’s relations with the Gulf – led by the UAE and Saudi Arabia – offer a further justification for India’s stance. As long as Israel doesn’t take drastic action such as annexing the West Bank, those erstwhile enemies can easily find common ground in opposing Iran, while supporting (even if rhetorically) Palestinian national rights.
India and Israel should now use this favorable atmosphere and mutual trust for honest dialogue on sensitive and prickly political issues, including the way forward in Palestine. If the two countries can thereby expand common ground, they can cement a deeper strategic partnership with stronger political backing for each other.
Even with Israel under a hawkish government that doesn’t take kindly to criticism of its policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians, there is always that key safety valve: India’s defense budget. It is far too large for Israel to ignore, which may mean Jerusalem would swallow pointed words from New Delhi, and agree to disagree, rather than let the relationship collapse.
India must now begin articulating clear policy positions on sensitive political issues in the Middle East and around the world. Yes, jumping off the fence means offending, even alienating, some of its friends. But that limited offense to the political sensitivities of a few countries is a price worth paying for the enormous strategic benefit to India of more serious and significant relationships with key allies who know for sure they can trust Delhi’s word, both behind closed doors and in international public fora.
India needs to stop teasing, and start committing.
Mohamed Zeeshan is editor-in-chief of Freedom Gazette and a writer for The Diplomat. He has previously served as an adviser to the Indian delegation to the United Nations in New York and worked as a consultant to governments in the Middle East. Twitter: @ZeeMohamed_