MANAMA Rising naval power India has no intention of becoming a U.S.-style protector of Gulf Arab states, even if the region's states asked it to take on that role, its foreign minister said on Saturday, citing his country's avoidance of foreign military deployments not mandated by the United Nations.
Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid added without elaborating that any effort by fellow Asian powers Japan and China to become a strategic security partner of the Gulf would not necessarily help secure the region, where deployed U.S. forces are currently the dominant military power.
Khurshid was speaking to Reuters on the sidelines of a security conference in Bahrain that debated whether a United States increasingly self reliant in oil might show less commitment to safeguarding the Strait of Hormuz, the world's main energy artery through which 40 percent of the world's sea-borne oil exports pass.
"We have never played the classical role of intervening with military assistance in the same way that the U.S. has been doing," he said.
"Because of the philosophical constraints that we impose on ourselves, we don't see ourselves as a replacement for any other power. We certainly don't believe that the presence of any other power, such as China or Japan, or what have you, would necessarily contribute to the security of the region."
Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel told the meeting on Saturday that the United States has a proven and enduring commitment to Middle East security, backed by diplomatic engagement as well as warplanes, ships, tanks, artillery and 35,000 troop.
Nonetheless, unfamiliar strains have appeared in the relationship between the wealthy states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the United States, partly because a decline in Washington's energy imports from the region has stirred speculation it may reduce its military footprint in the region.
Another reason for strain is progress in negotiations on Iran's dispute nuclear programme, a development that raises the possibility of a rapprochement between the United States and Iran, a country some GCC states view as a troublemaker, after more than 30 years of hostility.
That has led some Gulf Arab analysts and officials to speculate that the GCC states of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar are casting around for new security partners, possibly the rising military powers of Asia that have long been the main buyers of oil from the Gulf states.
Khurshid told Reuters India would not play this role, although it would always be ready to help train, exercise and share intelligence with Gulf Arab forces.
Doing military exercises was one thing, he said.
"Stationing yourself for purposes of strategic defence is another matter entirely," he said. "India has very, very carefully and strictly adhered to certain principles and we would want to continue to adhere to those principles. We have never join alliances and we have never joined military groups."
India is on a push to modernise its mostly Soviet-era military, and plans to spend $100 billion in the next 10 years doing that. And like most Asian powers, India is building its naval forces just as Western navies cut back.
NO BOOTS ON THE GROUND
India launched its first domestically-built aircraft carrier this year, but it will not be fully operational until 2017.
In November, Russia handed over a $2.3 billion aircraft carrier to India after years of delays, extending the South Asian country's maritime reach in the Indian Ocean as it looks to counter China's assertive presence in the region.
India's first, British-built, aircraft carrier was bought in the 1960s and was decommissioned in 1997. Another ex-British carrier, the INS Viraat, is in operation but is reaching the end of its service.
India's is also one of several navies that keep watch against Somali pirates in gthe Indian Ocean: others include China, Russia, Japan and South Korea.
India seeks to expand its influence in the Gulf, where it has old ties of trade and where millions of its nationals are migrant workers, and relies on the Middle East for more than half of its oil imports.
But Khurshid suggested that direct military support would be a step too far. Asked if India would respond if Gulf Arab states asked it to play the role of a security guarantor, he said: "Even that would be a paradigm shift"
A UN request and a Gulf Arab request would be "a different thing."
"We would want to help them in logistics, including cooperation on counter- terrorism, on protection of sea lanes, on intelligence sharing, on capaciict building. These are areas where we are very happy to work with our partner friends."
"But will India be willing to step into a possible vacuum, if there might be the withdrawal of existing forces … I think that is not the kind of thing that we - in terms of present strategic planning and understanding, that we would (contemplate)."
"Boots on the ground is not something India has done except very specifically and enthusiastically through the UN. Whenever the UN has sought help and personnel we have provided it.
(Reporting by William Maclean)