Seldom does the discussion on Gulf-Asia relations focus beyond the expanding economic ties between the oil-rich producers and some of the biggest energy consumers.
Exploring the ‘what next’ dimension of this engagement reveals tentative, but interesting, attempts to diversify towards ‘strategic’ cooperation that offer alternative possibilities for Gulf security and stability in the long term.
While the ‘rediscovery’ of Gulf-Asia ties is linked to the growth of Chinese and Indian economies, it is becoming clear that the progress of their strategic role in the region’s affairs impinges on several regional and external players having crucial interests and concerns of their own. Hence, it is important that rather than China- and India-centric approaches, a ‘pan-Asian’ cooperative approach would serve the purpose better.
This emerges from the realisation that Asia’s long-term interests cannot allow it to remain dependent on the United States for the security of its energy supply chain. Simultaneously, the US economic decline is adversely impacting its political and military influence, both regionally and globally.
There is also evidence of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries thinking out of the box and exploring strategic engagement beyond the exclusive arrangement they have had with Washington for decades. The US failure to effectively deal with the Iran, Iraq and Syrian crises hastened the search for alternative arrangements.
Such a milieu opens doors for other players to pursue a broader cooperative approach. Influential Asian countries like China, India, South Korea, Japan, Turkey, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and Pakistan, among others, committed to Gulf security, must develop an arrangement that encourages not
only economic and political cooperation, but also explore an alternative and broad-based security architecture in the Gulf. The expanding defence capabilities, especially the navies of some Asian countries, are particularly relevant to the region.
An approach of this kind is equally relevant because of Gulf-Asia ties being politically complex and sensitive. Just as many Asian countries have developed a special relationship with the GCC countries, they are also robustly engaged with Iran. Given the ongoing GCC-Iran conflictually-competitive relations, pursuing an Asian approach to achieve Gulf security could serve twin purposes: one, enhance the security of the energy-rich region, from the perspective of the both the Asian suppliers and buyers; and two, reduce regional tension by exploring a conflict resolution and security framework that incorporates the principal Asian countries.
However, it is also true that despite the utility of existing arrangements wearing thin, a new security architecture is unlikely any time soon. While Asian cooperation on soft security issues is easy to realise in the short and medium terms, joint efforts on hard security issues are bound to be beset with challenges in the long term. This is due to a lack of consensus on shared strategic perceptions and mutual confidence and trust, both between the principal Asian and GCC countries, as well as among several Asian countries.