The Gulf States’ Strategic Hedging Amid Growing Tensions in the Indo-Pacific


The Indo-Pacific region has drawn great attention in recent years owing to its geopolitical and strategic importance. Escalating tensions between the United States and China in the region has shifted focus to security hotspots and their potential impacts on global trade, supply lines and maritime security. The foreign policies pursued currently by the Gulf states reflect their desire to carve out new opportunities amid the prevailing geopolitical turbulence spurred by COVID-19, the Russia-Ukraine war and the lessening importance of the Middle East in the compass of the US administration. In this context, the Gulf states have accentuated their involvement in the region, primarily to preserve their interests and enhance their economic partnerships by adopting strategic hedging policies.

The concept of strategic hedging is characterized by maintaining a balance amid a series of competing powers or potential threats. This is achieved through diversifying diplomatic, economic and security partnerships and alliances that ultimately allow a country to safeguard its interests without becoming overly dependent on any single ally or partner. For the Gulf states, this would essentially mean increasing their engagement with the major powers in the Indo-Pacific region and remaining aloof from the simmering US-China rivalry. This is particularly critical considering US moves to shore up deeper engagement and establish a security architecture to push back against China in the region. For example, groupings like the Quad and AUKUS, US diplomatic visits to win over South Pacific islands like Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Tonga and the recent US-Japan-South Korea trilateral meeting are reflective of the aforesaid. China has not been blind or dismissive of these US moves, hence last year, Xi Jinping proposed the Global Security Initiative which was a response to the US Indo-Pacific strategy but no specifics regarding the initiative were revealed. In addition, China has also projected its soft power to court the South Pacific islands, with these islands turning into gold dust on the geopolitical chessboard.

The Gulf states maintain close relations with the United States on the security front despite recent tensions between the Biden administration and Saudi Arabia. However, as a part of their diversification strategy, partially owing to the necessities of their ambitious domestic socioeconomic reform programs and the quest to take a lead in the AI revolution, the Gulf states have increased their engagement with Beijing. Moreover, China brokered the Saudi-Iran rapprochement deal, reflecting the growing proximity between Beijing and Riyadh, a development that raised eyebrows in the Biden administration. The Gulf states have also increased their engagement with India in recent years. New Delhi’s geostrategic location coupled with the economic potential and capabilities in the fields of agriculture, technology, outer space and healthcare have paved the way for deepening relations between both sides. Saudi Arabia has enhanced its relations with India, with the visit of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2019 reflecting the importance of the relationship. However, at the same time, Saudi Arabia has kept up its close relations with Pakistan, India’s regional rival, and reiterated its commitment to Islamabad to ensure there is no rift amid its growing relations with India. The GCC remains India’s largest trading bloc partner and as per India’s Ministry of Commerce and Industry, bilateral trade between India and the GCC touched $154 billion during the financial year 2021-22. India and China have emerged as significant players in the global oil markets which has further enhanced the prospects for the Gulf states to forge deeper ties with both countries.

The trilateral cooperation initiative launched by France, India and the UAE reflects Abu Dhabi’s international role in effectively engaging with diverse partners, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region. The growing ties between the UAE and South Korea on the security and economic fronts further reveal the considerations of the Gulf states in their pivot toward Asian powers. The UAE continues to strengthen its economic connections, especially beyond energy, with countries like South Korea, China and other Asian counterparts. Similarly, Qatar has also accentuated its efforts to forge close ties with Asian powers, especially India, Japan and South Korea. Viewing the evolving geopolitical order as less dominated by the West and more interconnected, this shift of focus is highly significant.

Asia is progressively emerging as the primary economic powerhouse and is projected to contribute to over 50% of global GDP by 2040. Within this framework, the Gulf states aim to preserve their interests in the Indo-Pacific, cementing their unified status as a pivotal center for energy, trade and commerce, strategically located at the intersection of Asia, Africa and Europe. The first meeting of ASEAN and GCC foreign ministers that is scheduled to take place in September 2023, in conjunction with the GCC-ASEAN Summit that will be held in October 2023 in Riyadh, is reflective of the Gulf states’ seriousness in engaging closely with the region.

Editorial Team