The gathering of southeast Asian leaders last week at a summit in Delhi was a celebration of India's Look East policy. Could we imagine a similar "Look West" strategy towards the Arabian Peninsula?
Delhi has often mused about Looking West, but there has never been a serious political effort to initiate one. Like southeast Asia, the Arabian Peninsula is linked tightly to India through history, culture and commerce. Just as the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations emerged as a major partner for India over the last two decades, the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) has become a critical region for our economy.
If India did $80 billion worth of trade with ASEAN this year, its annual commerce with the GCC is now close to $120 billion. The GCC countries provide more than 40 per cent of India's rapidly growing petroleum imports and host nearly six million migrant workers. The GCC is India's largest trading partner and together with ASEAN, the GCC accounts for more than a quarter of India's annual two-way trade in goods. But the GCC is a long way from acquiring an ASEAN-like profile in Delhi.
India's political leaders travel less frequently to the Gulf. ASEAN's expansive institutional processes have compelled Delhi to sustain a relentless interaction at all levels. The GCC's institutions are yet to mature and Delhi is under less compulsion for a sustained whole of the government engagement with the Arab states of the Gulf. That could be changing as the GCC seeks a more credible regional identity.
Faced with growing external and internal threats to the future of the political order in the Gulf, its leaders have sought to deepen their economic and political integration. Although they have talked the talk of customs union, free trade area, common monetary policy and defence integration, the members of the GCC have found it hard to walk the talk.