Context: National Security Advisor Ajit Doval met his counterparts from the US, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to discuss an ambitious proposal being pushed by the White House to link West Asian countries through rail — using Indian expertise — and connect the region to South Asia via sea lanes.
- The participants discussed the broad contours of the massive joint project to build railway, maritime and road connectivity in the larger region, linking the Indian subcontinent in South Asia with West Asia which the US also calls the Middle East.
- The idea for the new initiative came up during talks held over the last 18 months in a forum called I2U2, which includes the US, Israel, the UAE and India. The forum was established in late 2021 to discuss strategic infrastructure projects in West Asia.
What is the railway link plan
- It is among the key initiatives as United States wants to push in the Middle East as China’s influence in the region grows. The Middle East is a key part of China’s Belt and Road vision.
- The United states of America, has also proposed the Blue Dot network, is one of the elements in the creation of the connectivity project that will be financially sustainable and viable.
- For India, China has expanded its sphere of political influence in the West Asian region through what Delhi views as “mission creep” the breakthrough in ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran had caught India unawares.
Benefit of the project:
- Efficient: Such connectivity will allow for faster movement of the crude and minimise India’s costs in the long term. The connectivity boost will also help India’s eight million citizens who live and work in the Gulf region.
- Branding: The project will help India build a brand as an infrastructure builder in the railways sector. Boasting a strong rail network at home and buoyed by the success of creating such infrastructure in Sri Lanka, India has the confidence to do it overseas.
- It wants private companies as well as public sector enterprises to explore the potential economic and infrastructure opportunities in the region.
- Countering BRI: This will also have the effect of countering the Chinese Belt and Road project, which has burdened many countries in the region with infrastructure that has limited utility.
- Alternative Route: The government feels that India’s connectivity to its western neighbours has been limited for long by Pakistan’s blocking of overland transit routes. So, India wants to use shipping routes to reach West Asian ports.
- These include Chabahar and Bandar-e-Abbas (Iran), Duqm (Oman), Dubai (UAE), Jeddah (Saudi Arabia) and Kuwait City. Connectivity projects crisscrossing the Gulf and Arab countries, with Indian stakes, open up trading opportunities.
- Energy security: India is a significant energy consumer from the region plus it will be beneficial for partners in the project like UAE and Saudi Arabia. Prior to pivoting towards Russia in the aftermath of the Ukraine invasion, India was heavily dependent on the region for its energy needs and thus this initiative cab bring focus back on the region.
The basic plan is to connect South Asia, the Middle East and the US in ways that advance economic technology plus diplomacy and thus India can be the glue which binds the grouping. As New Delhi has steady ties with Washington and the latter sees it as a natural ally to counter the threat of China on the global map.
- The arrangement is far from a non-security mechanism for cooperation on development issues between four countries – I2 – India and Israel, U2 – USA & UAE.
- Foreign Ministers of the grouping first met in October 2021 and now the summit signals plans for cooperation have grown, and the US had highlighted that the I2U2 could become for the Gulf region what the Quad for the Indo-Pacific has developed too.
POSITIVE IMPLICATIONS OF I2U2 FOR INDIA’S INTEREST
- It would fill the gap the United States is leaving in the Middle East.
- It has the potential to transform the region’s geopolitics and geoeconomics.
- The group can deepen its engagement on issues that concern India — trade, energy ties, fighting climate change and enhancing maritime security.
- It coincides with stronger relationship that India has with both Israel and the Gulf countries.
- It would further deepen India’s cooperation with one of the most important partner UAE.
- It strengthens India- US engagement as strategic partners.
- It can be effective in countering China economically and politically.
AREAS OF CONCERNS
- Role of other Arabic Gulf powers like Saudi Arabia is yet to be ascertained in this partnership.
- An area of concern is that Except India the other three countries are adversaries of Iran.
- Causes concerns for India – Iran relations which are collaborating on strategic projects like Chabahar and connect Central Asia policy.
- New Quad is yet to clarify its strategic objectives.
- US policy towards India has not been very concrete. It created a Parallel AUKUS in the Indo-Pacific. US withdrew from Afghanistan without taking India into confidence.
- In this backdrop the US needs to further clarify India’s role in its strategic ambitions in the Middle east.
- New Quad has come at a time when Israel Arab relations are improving, China’s presence in the middle east is increasing and US is withdrawing from the region.
- In such a scenario India’s membership of the New Quad in the middle east can be crucial to India’s interest in the peace and stability of the region.
- However, there are concerns that India’s membership of the MEQ can have adverse impact on India’s relations with Iran. However, India has carefully been treading a path of pursuing its interests in the region, without taking sides on the existing fault lines.
Thus, India’s membership of MEQ which has outlined a soft agenda of cooperation seems to be in line with its policy of “non-interference” in the internal affairs, pursuit of strategic autonomy and extension of Bilateralism to Minilaterals.