It’s a crowded foreign policy week this week, with Indian officials participating in the Moscow-led round of talks with the Taliban on 20 October and External Affairs minister S. Jaishankar in Israel to update the relationship with the new Naftali Benett-Yair Lapid government.
And then there was, Monday late evening, the part-virtual, part-in person summit between the foreign ministers of India, Israel, UAE, and the US, a startling idea of an informal Quad on this side of the globe.
So, who was the elephant in the Zoom room this time? No prizes for guessing again. China.
As China reorganises the world in her own image, from South Asia to Canada and Europe – via Israel and Gulf kingdoms like the UAE – it seems as if the US is gaining fuller clarity about its role as a big power, after having divested itself from its millstone called Afghanistan.
To protect its own position from China snapping at its heels, seeking to become world number one, the US is clearly exploring new arrangements, alliances and coalitions. At the end of the day, give or take a military nuance or two, it all amounts to the same principle: Who is your Enemy Number One?
That’s the principle on which the Quad – whose members are the US, Australia, Japan and India – is built. That is also the principle on which Quad 2, or the “Middle Eastern Quad” – US, Israel, UAE, and India – is being nurtured.
What is truly surprising is the supersonic speed with which the US is moving. Less than a week ago, on 13 October, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met his counterparts from the UAE, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, and from Israel, Yair Lapid, in Washington DC. They agreed to set up two working groups – on religious coexistence, said to be the UAE’s idea, and on water management and energy issues, said to be Israel’s idea.
The meeting in DC was to celebrate the first anniversary of the Abraham Accords, signed a year ago between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain, which opened up parts of the Gulf to Israel and vice-versa, ending decades of mistrust between the two. In the year since, Israel has opened embassies in UAE and Bahrain, an unprecedented 130,000 Israelis arrived in the UAE as tourists and the UAE-Israel Business Council was set up.
On Monday, as India was added as the fourth leg to stabilise the table, the message was clear: UAE capital plus Israeli technology plus inexpensive Indian labour is being stirred in a potpourri by the US, whilst offering each country the flexibility to move as fast-slow as its domestic politics allows it to go.
That’s the beauty of the first Quad anyway. When it was first thought up, the Japanese believed it should have a security dimension, but India has since shied away from that idea and believes “non-military determinants” are the way forward – vaccine development and delivery, for example, and climate change.
Significantly, the linchpin for Quad 2, like for Quad 1, is the US. Meaning, the US still wields the power to bash several heads together in order to persuade them to arrive at a solution that best takes on China.
Considering both Israel and the UAE have been determinedly wooed by China these last few years – before the pandemic and definitely during it – one must hand it to America’s single-minded pursuit of its goals and the ability to influence others to follow.
Interestingly, the China-Israel relationship grew by leaps and bounds during the decade of Benjamin Netanyahu – believed to be one of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s closest friends. Netanyahu signed a comprehensive partnership with China in 2017, weeks before Modi’s visit to Israel and the Doklam standoff in Bhutan.
A determined US decided to act
But the US was not content to watch when it believed its interests were threatened by its closest ally, Israel, and its closest competitor, China. So three years after Netanyahu sold a section of the very busy commercial Haifa port to Shanghai International Port Group in 2015, the US Navy objected to the sale because its 6th Fleet uses an adjacent Israeli navy base where nuclear weapons-capable submarines are housed.
In 2020, Netanyahu further refused the US Coast Guard permission to inspect the port for Chinese surveillance capabilities.
The Joe Biden administration, concerned that Iran had become China’s go-to nation to buy oil, quickly got into the act. Only a few months ago, Dubai’s DP World and Israel Shipyards Industries – part of Israel’s military-industrial complex – won the project to develop a section of the Haifa port that lies directly opposite the Chinese-owned section “to create a US-friendly harbor at this critical future transportation hub,” reported The Diplomat.
Meanwhile, the Israeli-Emirati JV “is also working on the Med-Red pipeline project, which will link Eilat port on the northern tip of the Red Sea to Ashkel on the Mediterranean, allowing Gulf oil to circumvent the Suez Canal,” The Diplomat added.
The Abraham Accords seems to have already fulfilled part of their mission – to disrupt China-Israel relations. Meanwhile, there was the UAE, a key US ally in the Gulf, which has been warming up to the Chinese in recent years.
So, when the pandemic hit the world in 2020, Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed al-Nayhan, national security advisor and younger brother to the de facto ruler Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nayhan (known as MBZ), established a joint venture with the Chinese firm BGI to open a coronavirus lab in Abu Dhabi and conduct trials for a vaccine, reported Financial Times. The first vaccines available in the UAE were Chinese; the US’ Pfizer vaccine has become available only recently.
So MBZ’s trusted lieutenant Khaldoon al-Mubarak wrote to Honeywell asking for PPE kits, but because PPE exports were banned from the US, Honeywell asked Beijing to allow its subsidiary in China to export kits to the UAE; China agreed, then tied up with UAE state fund Mubadala to manufacture PPE kits in the Gulf nation.
More recently, a Pentagon report on China’s military power listed the UAE among nations China may be considering for “military logistics facilities.” It obviously helps that the Gulf states have never publicly criticised China for its internment of its Uighurs and that when MBZ visited Beijing in 2018, soon after Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, he was warmly welcomed by Xi Jinping.
UAE’s presidential advisor Anwar Gargash admitted earlier this month that economic and strategic competition between the US and China is forcing Gulf nations to choose, making them pawns in a new Cold War. “That is bad news for all of us,” Gargash said.
According to Bloomberg, UAE’s top trading partners in 2020 were China, India, Japan, the US and Saudi Arabia. The aforementioned Mubadala, UAE’s state investor, invested $853 million in Reliance’s retail division last October, besides paying $1.25 billion for a 1.85 per cent stake in Jio in June.
Clearly, as the US emerged from its Afghan nightmare, it found that the China challenge was far tougher than it seemed. A leaders summit of the Quad nations in Washington DC last month underlined that thought. Small wonder the US has sought to create a second Quad in the Arab world, with reliable partnerships shoring up the core.
One such exceptional tie is the one between India and Israel, which has proved its worth not just in the security sphere, but also in areas like water and agriculture that directly benefit Indian farmers. Experts in the Israel embassy in New Delhi serve 29 centres of agricultural excellence set up by Israel across the country.
How does India benefit?
So, what does Quad 2 or the “Middle Eastern Quad” do for India?
First, it connects India even more closely to key nations on its western front, across the Gulf and Middle East. Second, the US has not just shaken up the region with the Abraham Accords, it is providing the glue that binds an expanding coalition of like-minded nations – and while India may not be part of the Accords, it certainly agrees with the spirit that ties these countries together.
Third, it is a measure of the Modi government’s ambition on the foreign policy front that it is seeking to reconcile with groups as diverse as Taliban on the one hand and expand ties with older friends like Israel and the UAE.
Being part of two Quad coalitions allows India to spread its wings in a variety of ways — from the Indo-Pacific to the Mediterranean landmass — never seen before. It’s not a new world order yet, not by a long chance, but the first murmurings are apparent.
Jyoti Malhotra is a senior consulting editor at ThePrint. She tweets @jomalhotra. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)