To counter China’s footprint in Gulf, India is planning an ambitious connectivity project that aims to link New Delhi to the Middle East, reported Foreign Policy. National Security Adviser Ajit Doval held a meeting with his US and UAE counterparts, which was also attended by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The leaders discussed a joint infrastructure project that would connect the Middle Eastern countries via rail.
The ambitious connectivity project aims to link the Middle East to India through roads, rails, and seaports. The idea emerged during meetings of the I2U2 group–which also includes Israel–over the last year, Axios reported.
The I2U2 group–a relatively new vehicle for US-India cooperation in the Middle East–was not envisioned as a China-focused entity, given the close commercial cooperation that both the UAE and Israel enjoy with China, reported Foreign Policy.
Saudi Arabia hasn’t formalized relations with Israel, which means the latter isn’t a formal part of the project, but its membership in I2U2 suggests it will have a role.
The connectivity project shows just how much India benefits from the Abraham Accords, the Trump-era agreement that normalized relations between Israel and several of its Arab neighbours. The deal allowed for the establishment of the I2U2 group, and discussions there gave rise to the new initiative, reported Foreign Policy.
The proposed initiative signals that India and the United States are ready to take their joint efforts to counter China beyond the Indo-Pacific region and into the Middle East.
It’s clear the Biden administration views the connectivity project as a way to balance Chinese power in the region. “Nobody said it out loud, but it was about China from day one,” a former senior Israeli official told Axios.
The connectivity project aims to leverage India’s capacity as an infrastructure provider. Its track record includes the construction of the world’s largest rail system in Asia and contributions to cross-border electricity-sharing arrangements. Through the new initiative, Indian officials hope to develop a deeper infrastructure footprint in the Middle East to counter China’s BRI.
According to one assessment, in a best-case scenario, India could eventually benefit from land and sea trade routes stretching from Israel and the UAE all the way to Greece’s Piraeus port and onward into Europe.
India wants to participate in a new multilateral effort to push back against China’s growing Middle East footprint–driven by Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) investments and by a recent strategic agreement with Iran. Notably, Beijing also recently mediated a reconciliation deal between Tehran and Riyadh, reported Foreign Policy.
The Middle East is an increasingly significant space for India, given its trade interests there and the several million Indians who work in the region and send remittances back home.
Moreover, recently Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen visited New Delhi. Although he departed early because of a crisis with Gaza, he likely planned to meet with Indian interlocutors about the connectivity project.
In a statement released before the visit, Cohen said India can play a key role in strengthening regional stability in the Middle East, reported Foreign Policy.
India now has opportunities to scale up influence, trade, and diplomacy beyond the Indo-Pacific region–all in a year while holding the G-20 presidency, enjoying rapid economic growth, and overtaking China as the world’s most populous country.