The announcement of a strategic partnership between India and the United Arab Emirates is being seen as a significant elevation of ties as well as a sign of India’s shift in the region. Equally it is a shift in foreign policy where security and terrorism take precedence over diplomacy in driving India’s interests.
In terms of the region, the partnership is unique. But it is one of more than a dozen partnerships India has forged in the past decade including with the big economies of Russia, U.S., France, U.K., Germany and Japan but also with smaller neighbours like Afghanistan and Mongolia. “We should be careful with the word ‘strategic’. In India it is used very loosely,” says P.R. Kumaraswamy, West Asia expert and professor at JNU’s School of international Studies. “The key is the follow up after these visits. In the past follow up action was missing,” he told The Hindu .
“When you sign so many strategic partnerships, the term does lose some of its meaning,” agrees Sanjaya Baru of the International Institute of Strategic Studies. Others see strategic partnerships as a way of building “special” relations with several countries all at once, without being tied down to a military alliance or belonging to a bloc of any kind. In 2011, a study on the efficacy of India’s many strategic partnerships concluded that “the respectable nomenclature of a ‘Strategic Partner’ should be bestowed only on those countries with which there is a strong and mutually beneficial relationship in all the three sectors of political-diplomatic, defence and economic cooperation.”
Like the UAE, India has signed defence agreements with several countries in the region including Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Oman. While they have had some counter-terror cooperation on exchanging information, they have seen closer maritime cooperation under a Defence cooperation agreement signed in 2003 where the Indian navy holds regular port visits, and anti-piracy exercises.
Dr. Baru, who was part of the Foundation for National Security Research that published the report says that the UAE fulfils all of the criteria mentioned by the study, as one of India’s biggest economic partners, home to 2.6 million Indians and a crucial link to trade in the region. “It is clear from the announcement that India wants to change how it deals with the Gulf and West Asia, and the UAE, as a moderate non-Wahabbi, development-oriented country is its peg,” says, adding, “But it also indicates that the UAE is trying to liberate itself from the stranglehold of the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) and as the richest Sultanate in the region with significant arms acquisitions in recent years, is ready to flex its muscles with independent alliances.”
The shift for the UAE will have an impact in the neighbourhood, where Pakistan has been the country with closer cultural and governmental ties and a 1.2 million expatriate community that is second only to India’s. Officials say the joint statement’s reference to “condemn efforts by states to use religion to justify, support and sponsor terrorism in other countries” is a direct message to Pakistan and marks a shift in its position. In the past, the UAE has been seen as a “safe haven” for several of India’s most wanted terrorists, and was even one of 3 countries, including Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to recognise the Taliban government in Afghanistan from 1996-2001. Significantly, the UAE and Pakistan have had strained ties after Pakistan decided not to join the Saudi-led coalition in strikes on Yemen in April 2015, which one UAE Minister slammed, saying the move would benefit Iran.
Finally, analysts say, the Strategic Partnership seals the perceptible shift within Indian foreign policy from bilateral diplomacy to a security-oriented focus that gives NSA Ajit Doval the task of squiring the partnership, and not the MEA. The joint statement lists a series of engagements between the NSAs and National Security Councils of the two countries, stipulating that they will meet “at least once in six months” and push for “further points of contacts between their security agencies.” Given that Mr. Doval already conducts relations with China as the Special Representative, and will take relations with Pakistan forward in NSA talks slated for August 23rd with Sartaj Aziz, this may be one of the more significant outcomes of India’s latest Strategic Partnerships.