Source : The Sunday Guardian
In October 2021, when the world was just about recovering from the various variants of Covid-19, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar was visiting Israel for a meeting of the foreign ministers of four nations. Besides the host Israel, there were the US and UAE for deliberations amongst other issues, the stability and the economic uplift of an important region. The meeting dealt with issues concerning maritime security, infrastructure, digital infrastructure and transport.
The meeting was envisioned as an “International Forum for Economic Cooperation”. However, before the talks could end with a focal point, the group’s formulation, perhaps as intended by the US, found itself a new poetic acronym, I2-U2, sounding very much like the R2D2 robot of Star Wars. The two Is for India and Israel and the two Us for the US and UAE. It was also referred to as the West Asia Quad.
The basis for this became the increasing integration of Israel into the Middle Eastern/West Asian region, born out of the Abraham Accords with UAE, Morocco and Bahrain on the one hand and the deepening ties between Israel, Jordan and Egypt, on the other. The idea was to build a new architecture of capabilities, keeping in mind the overall foreign policy objectives of the United States. This was maintaining its economy, industry and the currency aligned to the continued servicing and development of the Western world, with the US as the undisputed leader and the driving force.
Four main issues have dictated the direction of the focus: 1) The long Covid pandemic and its consequences on the world economy. 2) The recent war in Ukraine and Russia’s assertion of its military might and the relentless pounding of a sovereign territory, with countries like India not being dictated to take sides in the developments. Already new alignments have emerged, with a totally independent nation like Switzerland and the frontline states of Finland and Sweden seeking NATO membership. 3) The expansionist traits of China in its Belt and Road initiative, driving many economies into a debt trap and consequently ruin, Sri Lanka being a classic example and China’s gobbling up of islands in the western Pacific including small island counties like the Solomon Islands. 4) The strong but mistaken belief that Russia still remains the main adversary of the US.
The original Quad, which had furthered a safe and free Indo-Pacific region, has come as an example of new alignments for greater grouping of democratic countries sharing common ideals and the rule of law. These countries would ensure open markets and have the inherent capabilities of guarding sea channels, exclusive economic zones and present a collective show of determination to safeguard their shared vital interests.
For India, the Indo-Pacific means a greater area of interest, despite the original Quad comprising the US, India, Australia and Japan not having the charter as NATO countries for defending their borders and maritime interests if attacked by an adversary.
India’s footprint in West Asia was, in any case strong and ties with Israel were sharply on the uptake.In the case of I2-U2, the United States took it as central to its strategy of empowering partners and encouraging them to work closely together, which could lead to a more stable region, thereby also enhancing Israel’s security and prosperity in the long term.
Secretary Antony Blinken, had some time earlier, held a meeting in Israel’s Negev desert with his counterparts from the Abraham Accord partners—UAE, Bahrain and Morocco—along with Jordan and Egypt, putting together the pieces of a well imagined regional partnerships. This was the precursor.What was needed was the addition of a major regional power to make it formidable. India was the answer. With UAE, India already had a good economic and strategic relationship built upon a time-tested mutual roadmap between the two countries. A large expatriate population was working in the Emirates and there was a very steady tourist flow between the two countries. Oil in any case was a special binder, the rest was the interest of the large Muslim population in our country which found an acceptable opportunity for employment in the Emirates.
The jigsaw puzzle seemed to fit rather easily for the American initiative. Trump had started the process of engaging the region, with his son-in-law Jared Kushner taking the initial initiative. The Biden administration was cementing this and putting its own stamp of approval.
India and the UAE have significant military ties, including military trade as well as joint production of different platforms. Furthermore, strategic maritime security cooperation, artificial intelligence and healthcare are some other areas where both countries are making efforts to deepen the cooperation. Only recently, a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) was inked between the two countries.
Since the establishment of diplomatic relations between India and Israel in 1992, bilateral trade and economic relations have progressed rapidly. From US$200 million in 1992 (comprising primarily of diamonds), merchandise trade diversified and reached US$6.35 billion (excluding defence) during the period of April 2021-January 2022.
Just to recall, India and Israel had already elevated bilateral relations to a strategic partnership during the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Israel in July 2017. India is the largest buyer of Israel’s military hardware and the latter has been supplying various weapon systems, missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles, over the last few years.
The first virtual I2-U2 Summit is will take place during the US President’s visit to West Asia from 13 July to 16 July 2022. With an aim to re-energise and revitalise American alliances globally, the I2-U2 Summit will be attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, US President Joe Biden, Israeli PM Yair Lapid and UAE President Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
In many respects, the Summit will be another Quad, spanning a large expanse of territories, seas and oceans especially for India as it finds itself in the midst of several complicated bilateral issues in West Asia. To this can be added the general volatility of the Gulf with regard to supply of oil, the instability in Pakistan and the island nations of Maldives and Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean Region. Beyond this the threat of lurking Chinese submarines in the Bay of Bengal and finally the Indo Pacific, where the maritime interest of not only India but the entire cluster of countries is at stake because of the expansionist policies of a belligerent China. This makes India’s position unique in Quad One and now Two.
The US must understand that India’s own stability vis-à-vis its neighbours and the need for full American support to its fight against terrorism will strengthen India for a more comprehensive and meaningful role in both Quads. As a follow up in diplomacy, India must reiterate its legitimate need for a permanent membership in the UN Security Council.