The arrival of the I2U2 as a quadrilateral security structure in West Asia will act as a strategic group. Coupled with QUAD and the AUKUS, it will strengthen the position of the West in the Indo-Pacific Region. As the I2U2 focuses on the strategic concerns in West Asia as a geopolitical shift is taking place in the Western Indian Ocean, it will become a feature of the broader region with greater implications. I2U2 provides the opportunity for its members to collaborate and assist one another in six key areas. Being an economic group, it addresses the vacuum in West Asia and allows the Middle Eastern countries to view it as an alternative. With the smooth access and supply of oil being a prime aim across the world, the development of a security net under I2U2 will ensure peace and stability in the region.
The recent I2U2 (India-Israel-UAE-USA) virtual summit came at the backdrop of the presence of military bases of many major powers, including China in the Western Indian Ocean (WIO) and Russia’s intent to expand in the Indian Ocean Region and the Red Sea, transforming the region into an arena of power tussle. In presence of QUAD and the AUKUS, the development of the I2U2 reflects its potential to capitalise on the minilateralism trend in international relations. With the continued rise in crude oil prices, especially after the Russia-Ukraine War, the global dependence on oil from the Middle East region has increased and the region has become strategically relevant for major and middle powers. As the I2U2, in its recent virtual summit, discusses marine security, transportation and infrastructure, it further focuses on the strategic concerns in West Asia amidst a geopolitical shift taking place in the WIO. Since the I2U2 connects West Asia and South Asia with the Pacific Ocean Region, it aligns with the US Indo-Pacific Strategy and undoes Trump’s policy toward the Middle East under the Biden Administration.
The arrival of the I2U2 as a quadrilateral security structure in West Asia will not eclipse the QUAD; instead, it will act as a strategic group coupled with the other minilaterals, like QUAD and the AUKUS, to strengthen the West’s position in the Indo-Pacific Region. With the I2U2 being an economic group focussing on cooperation in health, water, transportation, space, food security and energy, its six key areas, which lack a military angle, complement the QUAD. The formation of the I2U2 vis-à-vis involvement of China and Russia in West Asia and the WIO is considered a strategic move from the West. The West sees Russia as a threat and China as a challenge, as they are working in tandem to alter the US-led global order. Being referred to as the ‘West Asian QUAD‘, its formation should be seen as part of a series of strategic initiatives taken by the West to strengthen their Indo-Pacific Strategy. With QUAD being a central pillar of the US Indo-Pacific strategy, the US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan argues that “the I2U2 can become a feature of the broader region.” In such regard, the I2U2 will strengthen QUAD and the US position in the Indo-Pacific region altogether.
Why is I2U2 Needed?
China’s growing influence in Africa and the Middle East to ensure the smooth flow of critical minerals and oil, the need to protect its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and Russia’s push to have a base in the Red Sea coincide with Iran’s Nuclear Programme. Abraham Accord, concurrent with the I2U2 in West Asia, reflects the geopolitical changes that are taking place in the region. Although the I2U2 is referred to as the West Asian Quad, it isn’t similar to QUAD as it primarily focuses on the economy rather than the military. For the UAE, the I2U2 provides an edge in the Persian Gulf; for Israel, I2U2 has changed its relationship with the Arab world. India being a part of the I2U2, could play an essential role in bridging the difference between the Arab countries and Israel.
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The recent I2U2 virtual summit came when no breakthrough was achieved in the US-Iran Nuclear Deal. Further, China joined other major powers to establish its overseas military base in the WIO. The WIO includes India, South Africa, along with the strategic Hormuz of Strait and the Bab-el- Mandeb Strait – close to Djibouti – and the Suez Canal as key chokepoints in the region. Moreover, the extended Russia-Ukraine conflict caused an energy crisis in Europe, pushing them to seek a secure gas and oil supply. Further, the US urged Saudi Arabia to increase its oil production; on the other hand, securing strategic straits and chokepoints in the WIO region became important to secure the global energy network and economic security dynamics.
The leaders of the I2U2 acknowledge that there are global uncertainties worldwide and, as Israel PM Yair Lapid argues, global cooperation is needed to change the world for the better. Talmiz Ahmed, former Indian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE, argues that with the turmoil worldwide, countries are unsure whether such groups will work, but still, they are joining and hedging bets thinking it will work best for them at the time of need. With the increasing global dependence on oil from the Middle East, the formation of the I2U2 should be seen as a counter-strategic security move to ensure that the regional countries’ and Europe’s need for secure energy supply is accessible and secured, and does not get affected due to ongoing great power politics between the West and Russia and China.
Significance of the I2U2 for India and the EU
After the QUAD, the inclusion of India in the I2U2 reflects that the US views India as a more reliable, strategic and development partner in the Indo-Pacific Region. India shares a deep-rooted historical, cultural and civilisational connection with West Asia, which occupies great significance in India’s strategic framework as it sees it as an extended neighbourhood. For the US, India has become a natural choice to assist it in revitalising its alliance structure in the West Asia region owing to the good reputation which India enjoys among the West Asian countries. Further, the former Israeli NSA Major General Yaakov Amidrov argues that the inclusion of India in the I2U2 is a game changer, and India could take advantage of the group. When we talk about the regional geopolitics of the Middle East, we find India being an odd one, and being part of the I2U2 provides India with a prospect to engage deeply in the region’s geopolitics while ensuring its long practised ‘strategic autonomy’ in the region remains unaffected. Thus, for India, the I2U2 not only provides an opportunity for greater economic engagement in the Middle East but also the need to have a balancing act in West Asia, as geoeconomics and economic linkages cannot be viewed separately from geopolitics.
As the Ukraine-Russia conflict caused an energy and food security crisis; it increased the world’s dependence on West Asian oil, impacting all, including the EU. Moreover, the conflict pushed Russia to curtail its oil and gas supply to Europe to counter Western sanctions, which pushed Europe to diversify its energy source and look for trustworthy suppliers. As Europe imports 40% of its gas from Russia, which they intend to reduce, the EU saw Israel as a major natural gas supplier and signed a trilateral MoU between Israel, the EU and Egypt. Further, the proposed EU-Israel seafloor pipeline project is expected to meet 10% of the EU natural gas demand.
The proposed seafloor pipeline project will connect Israel with Greece and Italy via Cyprus. However, it is struggling with political and logistical complexities. On the other hand, since the UAE and Saudi Arabia are currently enjoying high oil barrel prices, the EU’s shift to Israel to secure its natural gas demands should be seen as a strategic move. With energy being one of the key areas of cooperation among the I2U2 members, and given Israel’s two major gas fields with an estimated one trillion cubic meters of gas reserves, the I2U2 could come in handy for the EU and reduce its dependence on Russian oil.
Changing West Asian Geopolitics and the I2U2 Global Relevance
With the onset of the I2U2, it allows its members to strategically integrate the Indo-Pacific region and the Middle East region giving the US and its allies, partners and friends to strengthen their position in the Indo-Pacific Region. With the ongoing normalisation of the relations between Israel and the Arab countries, which includes the recent Negev Forum, the I2U2 will subsequently become a gatekeeper to ensure security and economic development from West Asia to South Asia. With Haifa port coming under Adani Ports’ control till 2054, an Indian company, the influence of China in West Asia will be undermined by India and Israel. Within the I2U2, the role of Iran and Turkey as regional powers, and China and Russia as outside powers, their influence and domination will be checked and countered.
The road towards success for the I2U2 in the Middle East region will not be smooth, with its members coming with economic and geostrategic concerns. To impose strong sanctions against Russian actions in Ukraine and restrict countries from buying Russian oil, many Asian countries took a balanced approach to exercise their strategic autonomy, which weakened the sanctions and wary the US and the EU. As a result, India became a major buyer of Russian oil and China, on the other hand, continues to be careful to adhere to the sanctions, while also becoming the largest buyer of Russian oil, replacing Germany. With the price of crude oil per barrel increasing, the US – despite the issue of Jamal Khashoggi – urged Saudi Arabia to increase their total production, which met with a mixed outcome, as the OPEC+ continued to remain firm on the current oil production target.
Of late, the US involvement in the Middle East region has been reduced because of former US President Donald Trump’s Middle East Policy allowing Russia and China to become viable alternatives (economic and security) for West Asian countries, impacting the US as a credible security umbrella in the region. With Russia wanting oil payment in rouble from Europe and in UAE dirhams from India, Saudi Arabia and China, on the other hand, agreed to syncretise the BRI with the Saudi Vision 2030 roadmap with Yuan as the mode of payment for oil. It coincides with the US quest to normalise ties with Iran which restricts Saudi Arabia and the UAE to condemn Russian actions in Ukraine as they see West sanctions lacking efficacy with the Russian rouble bouncing back strongly against the US Dollar. Further, the West Asian countries didn’t want their relationship with China – the largest consumer of the hydrocarbons – and Russia, which is also looking for a way to enter the Indian Ocean (many view it as a potential defence and security partner) to be discounted.
US President Biden, in his concluding remark after he met with the GCC members at Jeddah, stated that the US would not allow Russia, China and Iran to take advantage of the vacuum created because of the US withdrawal from the Middle East, and thus the US will continue to engage in the region. Recently China, Iran, Turkey and Russia increased their influence in the Middle East, which worried the US. As there is a need to fill the vacuum in infrastructure in the region acknowledged by US President Biden, the I2U2 is projected as the geoeconomics move to deter their zone of influence. For the US military bases in the Middle East, the I2U2 will strengthen and revitalise their position in West Asia in economic terms.
The recent increase in Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific Region, the Ukraine-Russia conflict, and Russian and Chinese foothold in the Middle East region, project a need to secure energy supply and critical minerals from the WIO region. While QUAD and the AUKUS are key to revitalising the US alliance system globally, the Abraham Accord, the Negev Forum and now the I2U2, have become key alliances in West Asia. Under the I2U2, members will not only cooperate with each other but will also invest and assist in each other national projects strengthening the I2U2. On the one hand, India became one of the key players in the region’s geopolitics and the I2U2 elevated its position and role in global geopolitics, while on the other hand, the Russian-Ukraine conflict allowed the EU to further diversify its energy source with Israel coming to its rescue.
Considering current developments in West Asia and WIO and turmoil worldwide, more countries would prefer a multi-polar arrangement which allows them the freedom to exercise their strategic autonomy instead of choosing a side in the Cold War 2.0 matrix. As the I2U2 ensured, the West undermined the economic and strategic advantage gained by Russia and China in the Middle East. To an extent, the I2U2 reflects part of the Biden Administration to contain China, which has become a strategic threat to the US and its alliance system in the Middle East and in the Indo-Pacific Region, pushing the US to address the issue through military, trade and political means.
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About the author
Kashif Anwar, is a Research Associate at the Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS), New Delhi, has an M.Phil in International Studies. His area of research interests is China, the US, India, geo-strategy, geo-economic, military technology, and geopolitical developments in the Indo-Pacific region. He has presented research paper at Jamia Millia Islamia and the Christ (Deemed to be University) Delhi NCR and published his papers in the Geopolitics, Financial Express, the Defence Horizon Journal and TheRise.