The lifting of nuclear-related sanctions on Iran by the US and other Western powers has opened up new horizons for India. For the last few months, India has been trying hard to boost its ties with Iran, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other countries in West Asia in an attempt to stamp its authority in the Indian Ocean (which currently bears only its name). On Sunday, the Narendra Modi government in New Delhi confirmed that India would send a flotilla of warships to the Persian Gulf to add military heft to its ongoing stepped-up diplomatic outreach to the region.
A senior Indian Defence Ministry official told the press that it was (undoubtedly) a stunning decision by the government, as India did not make such a move in the past. The official, who wished to remain anonymous, said that India would make more such moves in future mainly to counter China’s growing influence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). At the same time, he admitted that it has become really difficult for India to strike a balance between Sunni-led Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait, on one hand and the Shiite Iran on the other.
However, the Defence Ministry official expressed hope that the South Asian country would overcome the diplomatic challenges and counter China with the help of its West Asian friends. He informed the media that guided-missile destroyer ‘INS Delhi’, stealth frigates ‘INS Tarkash’ and ‘INS Trikhand’, missile frigate ‘INS Ganga’ and tanker ‘INS Deepak’ would leave Mumbai for Dubai on May 3. After staying three days in Dubai, the Indian warships will reach Kuwait on May 12. They will also make stopovers in Manama and Muscat before returning to Mumbai by May 27-28. Around the same time (May 20 to 23), another Indian warship will visit the famous Bandar Abbas port city on the southern Iranian coast. According to the Indian official, New Delhi has a bigger plan for West Asia. He revealed that the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) Sukhoi-30MKI fighter jets and IL-78 mid-air refuelling aircraft would arrive in the UAE to take part in an exercise while returning from the (April 28-May 13) ‘Red Flag’ exercise at the Eielson airbase in Alaska during Indian Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar’s visit to Oman.
The official is of the opinion that the Indian military establishment is eager to strengthen its ties with Iran and other West Asian nations, as the primary area of India’s strategic interest is stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Malacca Strait. “The visits by our warships and aircraft to the Persian Gulf are aimed at enhancing defence relationships and inter-operability with the countries there, as well as showing the Indian flag in this region of strategic importance,” he added.
The Defence Ministry official argued that India’s military diplomacy and political diplomacy are closely related and both are aimed at bolstering economic and security bonds with a region, which is home to around eight million Indian expatriates. The region is also India’s big trading partner and major source of energy. Soon after Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia and the UAE (which have traditional close ties with Pakistan) in the first week of April, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan visited Shia-majority Iran in a counter-balancing bid. From these visits, it is evident that India’s role in West Asia is now the full-time focus of the Modi government.