But quite often, particularly in the Asia-Pacific fora and in BRICS, G20 etc., India is necessarily pressed together with China, though the latter is growing to pose the greatest strategic problem and potential security hazard for the sub-continent. India, perhaps seen as a rival by China despite its much bigger economy, has recently drawn closer to a clutch of friendly Arab countries. They now feel a greater threat from Shia Iran, to their nominally Sunni kingdoms, than erstwhile anathema Israel. For them, India is the perfect go-between. Most are privately “fatigued” by matters concerning the Palestinian Authority after decades of nil progress, and lukewarm to its current financial and political demands.
India gets on bilaterally not only with the US and Russia, but paradoxically also with the “other side”. It has, for example, a good understanding with both Iran and Syria and certainly with Afghanistan. India is regarded as a responsible nuclear power. It is unique in receiving a waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) long before China contrived to keep us out. With an unblemished non-proliferation track record, which is more than China can say, India is on cordial terms with all the Western NATO allies. Amongst them, notably the movers of the EU, France, Germany and also Britain, America’s all-weather ally, moving now towards Brexit. The threat of Chinese/Pakistani hegemony is now very real to India and of geostrategic concern to much of the developed world. Combined with Islamic terrorist extremism in India’s neighbourhood and within its borders, it provides a commonality of experience and purposewith Jewish Israel and its staunch backer America. So much so, that the forthcoming visit of Prime Minister Modi to Israel, a first for an Indian Prime Minister 25 years after full diplomatic relations were established, will almost certainly break new ground. Not only has National Security Advisor Ajit Doval just visited the US and Israel in preparation, he is being followed by S. Jaishankar, Foreign Secretary, and M.J. Akbar, Minister of State for External Affairs.
In matters of security and defence, Israel has always proved to be a reliable ally. During the Kargil War, Israel rushed badly needed artillery shells to us. Before that it helped India in every war with Pakistan and the infamous one with China too.
Today, Israel is India’s third biggest defence partner and weapons supplier after the US and Russia. The quantum of defence related trade has exceeded $10 billion in recent years. Modi could well sign on the $2.5 billion project to jointly develop medium range surface to air missiles during his visit. Later, the third generation Spike anti-tank guided missile systems, and acquisition of two more PHALCON Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS) from Israel await.
The highly successful Barak missiles, commissioned for naval use, have also been jointly developed. Israel is also a major supplier of Unmanned Aviation Vehicles (UAVs), including 108 Searchers and 68 Herons in recent times. Israel is working quietly with India in high technology surveillance, intelligence gathering, border wall and fence management, training in intelligence gathering and a host of other security issues.
There is no Indian diaspora in Israel, but nearly 40,000 Israelis of Indian Jewish origin have migrated there. And as many decommissioned Israeli soldiers of both sexes regularly visit India every year after completing their compulsory military service.
Apart from defence issues, India may be seeking to sharply upgrade trade, modernisation and low water-use technology for agriculture and possibly even work towards a free trade agreement soon.
Israel, on its part, is significantly moving away from the “two-nation” matrix vis-à-vis the Palestinian Authority to remove, once and for all, a binary of perpetual conflict. America under President Donald Trump appears willing to go along with this tectonic shift, as is most of the moderate Arab world, reconciled to Israel’s existence. This is what heralded the recent settlement of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip under Israeli auspices and in Israeli built facilities. India, unwilling to condemn Israel at the UN Human Rights Council for alleged abuses in Gaza, is likely to offer tacit support to the US-Israeli position. It may have already helped propagate the merits of a Palestinian homeland subsumed within the Israeli State, to recently more friendly Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE.
Israel, located nearer our neck of the woods, has repeatedly demonstrated an ability to both proxy for and do swiftly what US Congressional process takes a long time to allow. A case in point is the operationalising of the important Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), signed several months ago, during the Obama administration.
Modi is expected to visit Israel either on his way or return path from the G-20 Summit to take place in Hamburg in July. The Modi administration has seen a procession of Indian dignitaries going to Israel from the start: Home Minister Rajnath Singh in November 2014, President Pranab Mukherjee in 2015, and Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj in 2016. The latter two however did visit both Palestine and Israel. Modi has also been to Israel, as Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2006. He also met current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the side-lines of the UN General Assembly, September 2014, in New York.
The only Israeli Prime Minister to visit India was the late Ariel Sharon in 2003. But lately, in 2015, Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Ya’lon came to New Delhi. And President Reuven Rivlin also came in 2016. Modi will precede the G-20 and Israel visits, in June, with one to Moscow, probably his first foreign visit since November 2016. This will be to reinforce the Indian bilateral relationship with a long term ally and No. 2 arms supplier, including the joint venture for the deadly Brahmos missiles. There is also the purchase of the world’s most advanced missile defence shield on order. Other involvements include ships, submarines, helicopters and so on. The occasion is the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum.
China, meanwhile, is not lacking in naked ambition. Its One Belt One Road (OBOR), its 10,000 km freight train despatch to Britain, the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)/Gwadar Port mega-projects, the military installations in the South China Sea, all demonstrate it. Of late, it brazenly employs both Pakistan and North Korea as cat’s paws to further its purposes.
India, geopolitically caught in the middle of all this, is fortunately an advanced nuclear power itself, and has acquired much expertise in the manufacture of nuclear or conventionally enabled missiles and the launch of surveillance satellites.
China, in a peculiar compartmentalisation of its own desires while ignoring ours, shamelessly exhorts India to join its grandiose projects on land and sea, while menacing us at the same time. But with much talk of “tactical nukes” that China helped Pakistan build, which the latter loudly threatens to use in case of war with India, we have had ample warning and time to obtain remedy of our own. This may have nullified the advantage of a bigger, better equipped People’s Liberation Army (PLA), plus a sabre-rattling Pakistan combined.
Israel is now expected to partner India in refining its abilities further to counter both Pakistan and China, while increase its negotiating leverage. This is why the forthcoming state visit is of the greatest importance to India. For Israel, strong ties with India will legitimise it further within its geopolitical matrix and help further the sway of the American alliance.