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Why I2-U2 Must Focus on the Future and not the past

All set for the first I2U2 summit today comprising India, US, UAE and Israel

By N. Janardhan and Gedaliah Afterman

US President Joe Biden’s visit to West Asia this week is expected to target several critical issues. Among others, they are re-engaging with Saudi Arabia, particularly Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Saud; enhancing energy production and stabilising global oil prices; revitalising the Palestinian-Israeli talks; encouraging the expansion of the Abraham Accords club; reinforcing US security presence and commitment to the region; finding a way out of the Saudi-led war in Yemen; and building a stronger coalition to counter growing Iranian and Chinese influence.

But another agenda item for Biden’s visit has been lost in the din – the I2-U2 Virtual Summit slated for 14 July, involving the leaders of India, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States.

The new grouping minted in late 2021 – a year after the Abraham Accords were signed – is a US-envisaged “partnership for the future”, focusing on evolving synergies in technology and infrastructure projects, enhancing political and economic cooperation, and maritime security issues.

The new template took shape amid the debate surrounding the changing global landscape and the future of diplomacy in a Covid- and post-Covid world. It gathered pace after the Russia-Ukraine War broke out, with a foreign ministers’ meeting in March 2022.

While recent more tentative diplomatic templates in the region – like the UAE’s and Saudi recalibration bids with Qatar, Turkey and Iran – are focused on tension management, the I2-U2 grouping has made little reference to date to geostrategic issues, barring the emphasis on economic growth strategies. This makes nomenclatures like ‘new quad’ and ‘Middle East Quad’ misleading.

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, colloquially called the Quad, was initiated by the late Shinzo Abe in 2007, with Japan, India, Australia, and the United States forming the core. As the name suggests, the Quad has a security overtone to it and is aimed at countering China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific and beyond. The I2-U2, on the other hand, targets no one, at least thus far.

Further, the Quad’s transformation into a significant bloc has been very slow. It took 15 years after its genesis for a summit to take place in Japan in early 2022. In contrast, the I2-U2 summit talks, even though virtual, is taking place in less than a year after the dye was cast.

The four countries would seek to “re-energise and revitalise alliances” across the world, according to the White House. They are expected to discuss the global food crisis and other areas of cooperation across hemispheres where these four countries are “important innovation hubs”. Washington has also said: “We consider these initiatives central to our strategy of empowering partners and encouraging them to work more closely together, which will lead to a more stable region.”

If this indeed is the chief objective, the grouping holds the promise of opening potentially new opportunities not just between and among them and collectively, but also with their common strategic partners, especially in Asia.

While the United States is the chief unifier in the club, the other three members are striving ‘middle powers’. India’s ‘strategic’ ambition gels well with that of ‘start-up’ Israel and ‘scale-up’ UAE. They can forge their own trilateral partnerships and expanding them into other ‘minilateral’ or ‘plurilateral’ mechanisms, with their other partners, including Japan and South Korea, among others.

This stems from several factors. First, power in the 21st century is no longer determined by military prowess alone, but conditioned by technology, connectivity and trade. Second, new relations are more partnerships and coalitions than alliances, driven by strategic autonomy. Lastly, such partnerships are rooted in economic pragmatism rather than ideology.

It is here that any attempt to force this group to assume an anti-Iran or anti-China tone or both could derail its principle objective. The UAE, India and even Israel have different views on China compared to the United States.

India, which has had difficult ties with China, including the 1962 War and a brutal border clash in 2020, has been the most reluctant member of the Quad in its anti-China stance. And despite the tension, India and China are important trade partners and active BRICS members. On the other hand, the UAE and Israel have been under more pressure in manoeuvring the US-China superpower competition, which they have delicately managed thus far. 

Similarly, while Israel has security reasons to view Iran through an uncompromising lens, the United States has been open to dealing with the Islamic Republic by first signing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2015 and now by remaining engaged in the talks to rejoin the nuclear deal that the Trump administration revoked in 2018.

India has not let its good ties with Iran affect its engagement with the other I2-U2 partners. In fact, the United States has given India several waivers when dealing with the construction of the Chabahar Port, among others. The UAE too has sought to bridge rather than widen the gulf with Iran in the recent past despite numerous differences.

Yes, national security is intractable, but trying to pursue a collective security agenda does not cater to the strength of this grouping. It is also unlikely that any of them would individually compromise national interests and strategic autonomy to achieve consensus.

While each of the countries will continue to pursue their security goals individually or in other formations, I2-U2 will be successful only if it is a harbinger for the present and future in the economic development domain and not a prisoner of the past in the security sphere. It must move away from war and peace and the zero-sum game and superpower competition and advance a positive international agenda that brings different South and West Asia and Western constituents closer.

(Dr N. Janardhan is a senior research fellow at the Anwar Gargash Diplomatic Academy in Abu Dhabi and non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, and Dr Gedaliah Afterman is the head of the Asia Policy Programme at the Abba Eban Institute for International Diplomacy at Reichman University (IDC Herzliya), Israel.)