The first I2U2 summit held on July 24, 2022 assembled leaders — Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, President of the UAE Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, US President Joseph R Biden and, Prime Minister of Israel Yair Lapid to conceptualise and jointly promote investments in six mutually identified areas of water, energy, transportation, space, health, and food security. Historically, the minilateral I2U2 group was first mooted as the “International Forum for Economic Cooperation” during the External Ministers’ meet held in October 2021. Born as an upshot to the Abraham Accords, I2U2 was initially designed to address maritime security, transport and infrastructure and to harness the distinctive capabilities of the four power-heads for greater partnership opportunities.
As promising as I2U2 appears to be, political analysts have been quick to draw parallels between QUAD and the former, which perhaps may not be the best examination. Avid geopolitical watchers are naming the intentions behind I2U2 as a unified counter-force to China. Albeit, the Biden and Modi administration is looking to take a plunge in containing China from all ends through- QUAD, AUKUS, and pro-active Indo-Pacific strategies, the formation of I2U2 may not fully ally against the Chinese forays. In specific, UAE and Israel may not openly trot out blueprints against China in the region.
The I2U2 is an extension of an existing strategic formation set on principles of safeguarding economic and political stability. However, the political inclinations within the minilateral are far apart to be termed under ‘West Asian QUAD’. This article contends two reasons why the refurbished I2U2 may not be equated with a security bloc such as Indo-Pacific QUAD. First, are the obvious geopolitical fault lines exposing elements of differing foreign alliances and stances amongst bloc members, as more recently observed in the Russia-Ukraine war. Second, the bedrock of I2U2 is built primarily on economic cooperation and not defence and security alliance like the QUAD. For member nations to enjoy a striking resemblance to QUAD, they must invest in security dialogues and defence strategies aligned with the changing nature of global realpolitik.
Having mentioned that, one cannot refute India’s benefit involved in the integration of countries like UAE and Israel with the US. This bloc is a brilliant step towards gaining more ground in the Indian ‘Look West Policy’ and its sizable diaspora in the region. What remains to be analysed is the definable nature of I2U2 in the coming years.
Geopolitical Divergences in I2U2
The rise of minilateral nomenclature in the geopolitical arena defines a new era of foreign policy formulation. A period where national interest is the central force on which the edifice of external aspirations is built. Similarly, this sentiment runs through the veins of 12U2. However, given the assorted mix of countries, the key conflict drivers in the bloc will point to disagreements on China and Russia and hostilities with Iran.
A sphinx-like situation arises when we look at China’s diplomatic missions in Israel amid tensions with the US. Due to its geographic positioning as a transit nation tethering Asia, Africa and Europe, Israel is privy to participation in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to which UAE is already a signatory. The BRI renders significant opportunities to Israel and UAE in terms of tourism and technology. Moreover, Israel has been advantaged by the ban on US technology imports to China. Hence, it is in UAE’s and Israel’s best interest to remain in China’s good books. Further, China has been playing the devil’s advocate smoothly by embracing Abraham Accords with open arms as opposed to the US and other contemporaries who viewed it as restrictive. This perhaps is also the reason why China has not protested as aggressively against 12U2 as it did against the Indo-Pacific bloc calling the ‘Asian NATO’. China’s intention to parade like a shylock will only weaken the defences of 12U2 members to square up against it. Another reason for the rift in 12U2 could be the opposition by American hardliners over the active involvement of Chinese firms in the management of Israel’s telecommunication industries and ports, especially Haifa, where the fifth and sixth US fleet occasionally harbours. However, the Israeli response to the US over security concerns has been fairly non-committal and lukewarm.
Despite diverging bilateral ties, this West Asian Minilateral cannot be boiled down to the Indo-Pacific Grouping of QUAD whose foremost target is, “free, open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific regions”. While 12U2 solely focuses on- food security, water, energy, transport and space. The benchmark for qualifying as the West Asian QUAD would require alliance building on defence and security issues which seem bleak here.
The first summit of 12U2 may be a useful guide in understanding the fallibility of food security containment and the lack of sustainable strategies to tackle the growing global food crisis. As much as the US would like to, it is unable to garner support from its 12U2 members to thrust the blame for the food crisis on Russia. The ongoing Russia-Ukraine war has undoubtedly touched some raw nerves as the remaining three nations- India, UAE and Israel have eschewed imposing trade sanctions on Russia. Additionally, India has increased its direct investments in Russian oil and fuel in the face of rising prices. As far as international support is concerned, India and UAE have actively abstained from voting against Russia in the UNSC. Meanwhile, the Israeli government’s approach to the war has reflected wilful opacity against Ukraine, which was not received well by the US. The former repudiated the supply of Iron Drone Systems to Ukraine despite the US agreement. Instead in March 2022, the usage of Israeli drones was sighted from the Russian end.
Another worrisome angle lies in the complex game of peace accords, war and diplomacy between Iran-Israel ties. The historically infamous inflamed tensions over Palestine and Syria, Iran’s proxy against Saudi Arabia and UAE is a cause for concern for India which maintains friendly relations with them all. In this context, Israel does believe in India’s capabilities to concretely shape the influence of the Abraham Accords, however, its clear distrust in Iran may cause fissures in their relations with India. Therefore, India’s Iran-Israel dilemma is quite serious as it cannot afford to abandon heavy infrastructure projects, Chabahar port and hefty investments in Iranian gas and oil industries. Thus, a single slip in India-Iran relations would open gates for Chinese self-interests.
Thus, the current chink in the geopolitical ties demonstrates how unlikely and premature it is to deem the West Asian Alliance as another security-driven QUAD bloc. For India and US to fully attain their objective to contain China, they must go beyond commercial cooperation and prevent Israel and UAE from abettor China’s socio-economic and expansion in the region.
Since the turn of time, the Indian outlook on the Gulf countries has been far-sighted and dynamic. India’s participation in I2U2 is unmistakenly a paradigm shift in its “Look West policy”. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called the 12U2 démarche practical, positive and progressive which will define cooperation for generations to come. For India, one of the best gifts from 12U2 is the growth of transportation projects in the Western Indian Ocean where the perils of China’s presence are concerning. In addition to this, UAE has signed a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement to bolster trading activities through the belt. Moreover, the much-hyped food-corridor project envisages an investment of $2 billion by the UAE to fund food parks across Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. Thus, major profitable trade investments are coming in for India from US, UAE and Israel reinstating a comprehensive-engagement strategy.
The era of minilateral is offering a plethora of scope for strategic influence and India is fully prepared to milk the opportunities. While the die is cast for India and US to keep up with the China challenge, UAE and Israel are not on target to reunite against the Chinese influence. Hence the West Asian 12U2 must seize the nettle and extend its coalition beyond economic association to cover larger grounds of cooperation and security.
Samriddhi Roy is a researcher in India’s semi-governmental defence-based think-tank, United Service Institution (USI).