American policy in Asia has been governed by the desire to control hydrocarbon reserves, protect Israel at all costs, contain terrorism of the Islamic kind, and act as a check on Chinese expansionism. India’s policies at last appear to be moving in the direction of our self-interest, though we continue to be persuaded by propaganda of Western governments and media against many hydrocarbon rich Muslim countries and those who are apparent threats to Israel. We supported the invasion of Iraq. Under American pressure, we have kept our trade and investment relations with Iran at a low level and dithered on the pipeline to carry Iranian oil to India. So far we have not actively supported the invasion of Libya and abstained from voting in the United Nations on the preparations for attacking Syria.
We should be clear that our interests and those of the United States of America and European countries in West and Central Asia are not the same and we should not allow ourselves to join them in policies hostile to the region. Our interest must be to develop close relations with all neighbours, especially with the Muslim countries. That many of them own vast hydrocarbon reserves that are essential for our economic development is an advantage, along with the solidarity that we would show as the second most populated Muslim country. Access to Central Asian hydrocarbon resources located in moderate Muslim countries demands closer relations of India with Iran and Afghanistan that can give access.
We made a mistake in not opposing the Western invasion of hydrocarbon-rich Libya by North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces supported by the US and the subsequent murder of Muammar Gaddafi. The opposition to Syria is not so much about eliminating an oppressive dictatorship as about curbing any threat to Israel. American policy is not about eliminating dictators or preventing the exploitation of the people and the denial of their human rights. If that were the case, Saudi Arabia, the most autocratic and repressive of all these countries, and an exporter of Wahabi fundamentalist Islam and terrorism, should have been the first to see change at the barrel of European and American guns. But the Americans own Saudi Arabia and have no interest in changing its rulers.
India has, in past years, passively bought Western media stories about these countries and, in the process, strained its relations with them. We had excellent relations with Iran. Iraq under Sadam Hussein was close to India. Libya spoke for Pakistan but was important as a hydrocarbons supplier and the employer of thousands of Indian workers. India’s interest in these countries should have been in building our trade, investment and energy security, not kowtowing to American wishes.
Indeed, Iraq and Libya were the most liberal Muslim countries, with considerable freedom for women, education and social services. (In the Shah Bano case, Iraq was appreciatively quoted in our court for its attitude to women.) So is Syria a modern country in social policy. Iran is a theocratic state and has had problems with its neighbours. But Iran is also our gateway to Afghanistan, now that the die has been cast and India is keen to exercise influence there and get a share of its reportedly vast mineral resources.
The Americans would like to destabilize Syria because Syria is a threat to Israel and also controls Lebanon through the Hezbollah. Syria is also an advanced Islamic country with more human development and rights than, say, Saudi Arabia. India appears at last to have recognized that the US’s interests are not congruent to ours and has not supported the American attempt to destabilize Syria.
We need to be close to Muslim countries. Their energy riches, geographical proximity to us, trade and investment potential, as well as religion, make them important for India. We must protect our interests, not those of the US. We do not have to join the West in condemning rulers of Islamic countries for being undemocratic, not respecting human rights or rule of law, for keeping their women subjugated, and so on, even if all that were the case.
India also has to review and improve relations with its immediate Islamic neighbours, Bangladesh and Pakistan. With Bangladesh, minor border disputes appear to have been resolved, but not on river waters, which might be expedited after the impending Bengal municipal elections. Bangladesh has potential for gas exploration and providing gas imports to India.
Pakistan is also a reservoir of energy and other mineral resources in Baluchistan and Sindh — coal, gas, limestone, copper and others, apart from being a route to Afghanistan and Iran. India could help Pakistan in resource exploration, exploitation and as market. Cement factories we set up in Baluchistan could bring cement to Punjab. Adequate road and rail communications must be developed to bring them into India but the situation is a win-win one with Pakistan getting sizeable investment and employment and India considerable additions to its energy and minerals from a short distance.
Pakistan is also important as a transit route for oil and gas from the rich Central Asian countries and from Iran. It is essential that India have a friendly Afghanistan and Pakistan if these resources are to come to India. These overland imports will be much cheaper than if they had to come by sea on ships or through undersea pipelines. As a transit route Pakistan also stands to gain greatly from rental income from India. Importing oil from Iran can also serve as security against Pakistan interfering with supplies. The effect of these supplies will transform the energy economy of India. These considerations must drive all our disputes with Pakistan.
This logic must extend to other developing countries — among the Bric nations and the whole of Africa and Southeast Asia. It is good that some action has begun but our foreign service must be trained in trade, investment and energy issues.
We must not be mere followers of Western policies, primarily the US, and Western media propaganda. Our vital interest is to improve future oil and gas supplies from countries in our neighbourhood. Since many of the nations are Muslim with a history of anti-Israel feeling, we must ensure that our relations with Israel are not overly publicized. We do not have to join the West in condemning rulers of Islamic countries for being undemocratic, whether or not such is the situation. We have made a beginning recently by not voting for the resolution condemning Syria. We should have done the same with Libya and prevented Gadaffi’s murder. A Libyan government that is overly dependent on European countries and the US may not be in our economic interest.
At the same time we must have an active blue water Indian navy in the Arabian Sea. Asia, especially South and West Asia, and Africa, should be important postings for anyone who wants to rise in our foreign service. Energy cells must be created in each embassy that will constantly survey and report opportunities for India. Private investment must get all possible help in acquiring assets and setting up refineries, fertilizer plants, petrochemical plants and so on in oil rich countries.
Energy and resource security must be the driver of our foreign policy, not moral preaching or subservience to Western interests.