MANAMA (Reuters) - Foreign minister Salman Khurshid said India had no interest in filling the breach if Washington decided to reduce its military footprint in the Gulf, and cautioned that the region would not be well-served by turning to other Asian powers, like China.
“We have never played the classical role of intervening with military assistance in the same way that the U.S. has been doing,” Khurshid told Reuters.
“Because of the philosophical constraints that we impose on ourselves, we don’t see ourselves as a replacement for any other power,” he said on Saturday.
“We certainly don’t believe that the presence of any other power, such as China or Japan, or what have you, would necessarily contribute to the security of the region.”
Khurshid was speaking on the sidelines of a security conference in Bahrain, where a main point of debate is whether the United States might reduce its commitment to safeguarding the Strait of Hormuz, through which 40 percent of the world’s sea-borne oil exports pass, as it becomes more self-reliant in oil.
U.S. Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel assured the meeting that the United States had an enduring commitment to Middle East security, backed by diplomatic engagement as well as warplanes, ships, tanks, artillery and 35,000 troops.
But unfamiliar strains have appeared in Washington’s relationship with the wealthy states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), partly because of a decline in U.S. energy imports from the region.
Another reason for strain is progress in negotiations on Iran’s dispute nuclear programme, a development that raises the possibility of a rapprochement between the United States and Iran, whom some GCC states view as a troublemaker.
That has led some Gulf Arab analysts and officials to speculate that the GCC states - Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar - are casting around for new security partners, possibly the rising military powers of Asia that have long been the main buyers of Gulf oil.
Khurshid told Reuters India would always be ready to help train, exercise and share intelligence with Gulf Arab forces, but playing security guarantor “would be a paradigm shift”.
“Stationing yourself for purposes of strategic defence is another matter entirely,” he said.
“India has very, very carefully and strictly adhered to certain principles and we would want to continue to adhere to those principles. We have never join alliances and we have never joined military groups.”
India plans to spend $100 billion in the next 10 years to modernise its mostly Soviet-era military, and like most Asian powers, is building its naval forces just as Western navies cut back.
It also seeks to expand its influence in the Gulf, where it has old ties of trade and where millions of its nationals are migrant workers, and relies on the Middle East for more than half of its oil imports.
India launched its first domestically-built aircraft carrier this year, although it will not be fully operational until 2017.
In November, Russia handed over a $2.3 billion aircraft carrier to India after years of delays, extending the South Asian country’s maritime reach in the Indian Ocean as it looks to counter China’s assertive presence in the region.
India’s first, British-built aircraft carrier was bought in the 1960s and was decommissioned in 1997. Another ex-British carrier, the INS Viraat, is in operation but is reaching the end of its service.
India’s is also one of several navies that keep watch against Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean: others include China, Russia, Japan and South Korea.
“We would want to help them (the Gulf) in logistics, including cooperation on counter-terrorism, on protection of sea lanes, on intelligence sharing, on capacity building,” Khurshid said. “These are areas where we are very happy to work with our partner friends.”
“But will India be willing to step into a possible vacuum, if there might be the withdrawal of existing forces � I think that is not the kind of thing that we, in terms of present strategic planning and understanding, that we would (contemplate).”
“Boots on the ground is not something India has done except very specifically and enthusiastically through the U.N. Whenever the U.N. has sought help and personnel we have provided it.” (Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)