Another organisation has recently been inducted into the rapidly growing niche of “minilateralism”. The term refers to a grouping of a limited number of countries that come together with a targeted approach towards solving well-defined problems. The I2U2 is such a grouping that held its first summit virtually from the 13-16 July 2022. The grouping consists of India, Israel, the US, and the UAE, hence the acronym I2U2; however, some scholars have also dubbed it as the West Asian Quad. Quite similar to the Quad in Asia Pacific, the I2U2 is also a group of four countries, it has no explicit military pact connotations attached to it, and the endeavour is to find feasible solutions towards common issues. This is where the commonalities start to gradually fade away between the two groups. While the Quad has an explicit ambition of containing the expansion of Beijing in the Asia-Pacific and by extension in the Indian Ocean, the core fundamentals of the I2U2 are rooted in geo-economics rather than geopolitics; although this is not to say that there are no geopolitical undertones to this group.
The grouping is indicative of the fact that countries and their foreign policies are evolving in a way that looks beyond their traditional disputes. The group has two unlikely members—Israel and UAE together in one group could have been unthinkable, a decade ago. However, the seeds for a group like this were sown during the Abraham Accords in 2020. The Arab and Israeli states deciding to work together despite the historical and political disputes between them is a function of the concept of normalcy that was initiated during these Accords. It is emblematic of a greater change towards pragmatic realism in politics that was widely exhibited during the recent conflict between Russia and Ukraine. The larger more widespread response that was adopted by the western countries was that of rebuke, condemnation, and also gradual and systematic breaking down of ties with Russia to facilitate economic sanctions. While it is clear that the sanctions have not had the impact they were estimated to have, the decision by India to abstain from voting against Russia in the UNSC and the UNGA did not go unnoticed. Following the initial cajoling and strong rhetoric by western nations, there was widespread acceptance for the Indian decision to exercise their strategic autonomy.
A similar precedence of national interest over traditional contentions can be seen in this grouping. It is not just the question of UAE and Israel. There are also larger issues beyond the immediate ambit of the group. While the competition and conflict between Beijing and Washington is well known and well documented, there is a strong economic relationship between China and the UAE, and also China and Israel; while Israel and the US most definitely are allies. At the same time, India enjoys cordial relations with Tehran, and looks towards the nation for energy security; both the UAE, Israel, and the Americans have their fair share of reservations when it comes to the Iranians. At the same time, the growing congeniality between India and the US, as well as its membership of the I2U2 could be perceived as problematic; however, groupings like the I2U2 stand testimony to the fact that the world is now entering an era of new kind of politics. The era of minilateralism gives countries the autonomy to operate in a manner where they can prioritise their own national interests above the pressure to confirm to a greater narrative. Such privilege of autonomy was only reserved for the proverbial great powers traditionally.
For India, the I2U2 could be perceived as an extended manifestation of the Look West Policy. India has had a tradition of maintaining bilateral relations with the countries of the West Asian region. These relationships have been cordial and robust, there is also considerable Indian diaspora in countries of the region. India and West Asia also share long-standing historical linkages as well as cultural similarities in terms of familial structure and societal values. However, a grouping like I2U2 now provides India with an opportunity to play a greater role in global politics while conserving its strategic autonomy. India has traditionally been a vital partner to countries in Asia and Africa, and has a long-standing relationship with the US. I2U2 gives India the opportunity to make a greater impact in West Asia, and at the same time explore opportunities in the sector of energy security, as well as agriculture and food security.
The Indian MEA stated that I2U2 would focus on six main areas of cooperation—energy, space exploration, health, transport, and water. The UAE has already pledged 2 billion USD for integrated food parks to address the issue of food security.
In these parks private firms for US and Israel would participate for experimentation with sustainable and high yielding agricultural practices. Similarly, a hybrid energy project with a capacity of 300 mega watts is also being established in the state of Gujarat to harness solar and wind energy.
For the US, it is a safer path towards greater engagement in West Asia without committing to a military pact. For Israel and the UAE, it is a safe platform for collaboration with India and the US and also with each other. It would be interesting to see how the grouping fares as its priorities change with changing geopolitics.
Dr Aparaajita Pandey is an independent political analyst and strategist; she has a PhD from School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.