India‚Äôs foreign minister said the country had no interest in filling the breach if Washington decided to reduce its military footprint in the Gulf, and cautioned that the region would not be well-served by turning to other Asian powers, like China.
‚ÄúWe have never played the classical role of intervening with military assistance in the same way that the US has been doing,‚Äù External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid said.
‚ÄúBecause of the philosophical constraints that we impose on ourselves, we don‚Äôt see ourselves as a replacement for any other power,‚Äù he said.
‚ÄúWe certainly don‚Äôt believe that the presence of any other power, such as China or Japan, or what have you, would necessarily contribute to the security of the region.‚Äù
Khurshid was speaking on the sidelines of a security conference in Bahrain, where a main point of debate is whether the US might reduce its commitment to safeguarding the Strait of Hormuz, through which 40% of the world‚Äôs sea-borne oil exports pass, as it becomes more self-reliant in oil.
US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel assured the meeting that the US had an enduring commitment to Middle East security, backed by diplomatic engagement as well as warplanes, ships, tanks, artillery and 35,000 troops.
But unfamiliar strains have appeared in Washington‚Äôs relationship with the states of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC), partly because of a decline in US energy imports from the region. Another reason for strain is progress in negotiations on Iran‚Äôs nuclear programme, a development that raises the possibility of a rapprochement between the US and Iran, whom some GCC states view as a troublemaker.
That has led some Gulf Arab analysts and officials to speculate that the GCC states are casting around for new security partners, possibly the rising military powers of Asia that have long been the main buyers of Gulf oil.
Khurshid said India would always be ready to help train, exercise and share intelligence with Gulf Arab forces, but playing security guarantor ‚Äúwould be a paradigm shift‚Äù.
‚ÄúStationing yourself for purposes of strategic defence is another matter entirely,‚Äù he said. ‚ÄúIndia has very, very carefully and strictly adhered to certain principles and we would want to continue to adhere to those principles. We have never joined alliances and we have never joined military groups.‚Äù
India plans to spend $100bn in the next 10 years to modernise its mostly Soviet-era military, and like most Asian powers, is building its naval forces just as Western navies cut back. It also seeks to expand its influence in the Gulf, where it has old ties of trade and where millions of its nationals are migrant workers, and relies on the Middle East for more than half of its oil imports.
India launched its first domestically-built aircraft carrier this year, although it will not be fully operational until 2017. In November, Russia handed over a $2.3bn aircraft carrier to India after years of delays, extending the country‚Äôs maritime reach in the Indian Ocean as it looks to counter China‚Äôs assertive presence in the region.
India‚Äôs first, British-built aircraft carrier was bought in the 1960s and was decommissioned in 1997. Another ex-British carrier, the INS Viraat, is in operation but is reaching the end of its service. India‚Äôs is also one of several navies that keep watch against Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean: others include China, Russia, Japan and South Korea.
‚ÄúWe would want to help them (the Gulf) in logistics, including co-operation on counter-terrorism, on protection of sea lanes, on intelligence sharing, on capacity building,‚Äù Khurshid said. ‚ÄúThese are areas where we are very happy to work with our partner friends.
‚ÄúBut will India be willing to step into a possible vacuum, if there might be the withdrawal of existing forces – I think that is not the kind of thing that we, in terms of present strategic planning and understanding, that we would (contemplate).‚Äù
‚ÄúBoots on the ground is not something India has done except very specifically and enthusiastically through the UN. Whenever the UN has sought help and personnel we have provided it.‚Äù