By Dr Manjari Singh
Ever since India’s Defence Minister Rajnath Singh paid an official visit to Egypt in an attempt to further enhance bilateral defence cooperation, general speculations have hovered around the two countries expanding their partnership in defence industries. Cairo serving as a lucrative market for Indian defence products, joint defence manufacturing and co-production units and transfer and localisation of technology, are all part of New Delhi’s defence outreach to the African Republic. Cairo figures prominently in India’s defence ‘value market’ sales to 42 countries and is one of the six countries interested in India’s Tejas aircraft. While all the above are true, yet the ‘special friendship’ seems to be more than what meets the eye.
Marked by heightened trade, commerce and cultural exchanges through civilisational connect, Nehru-Nasser bonhomie, their leadership qualities and independent foreign policy outlook has been responsible for further bolstering of Indo-Egyptian relations. Ideological affinities based on mutual penchant for non-alignment brought India closer to Egypt during the Cold War era.
In the late 1950s and 1960s, India had adopted a Cairo-prominent Middle East policy, Egypt being one of the only in the wider Middle East with which India strengthened its ties during that time. Indeed, in a relationship spanning for seven and a half decades, both the countries have witnessed over 10 high level visits, one of the highest in the entire region. Given domestic entanglements during the Arab Uprising which had its influence until late, notwithstanding diplomatic efforts from both sides, Indo-Egyptian relations faced unavoidable challenges. There has been no high-level visit in the last six years.
Such engaged interaction is well reflected in the countries geoeconomic domain. Despite facing a decade of economic setback, Cairo continues to be New Delhi’s 35th largest trading partner. Egypt is one of the only countries in the West Asia and North Africa (WANA) with which India has a positive trade balance (US$223.09 million) which indicates that the exports from India (US$3,743.26 million) exceeds its imports (US$3,520.83 million) from the African Republic.
Additionally, despite miniscule contribution to India’s energy requirements (1.07 per cent), major items of import from Cairo include mineral oils, fertilisers, cotton and textile and animal-based products in that order. This suggests that geoeconomic and geopolitical significance notwithstanding, India’s continued engagement with the Egyptian Republic definitely has a geostrategic significance.
With the recent signing of security cooperation, Egypt is the eighth country to join the club of countries in the wider Middle East with which India has similar arrangements. These include Gulf nations such as Iran (2001), the UAE (2003), Qatar (2008), Saudi Arabia (2014), Oman (2016), and Israel (2017) and Jordan (2018). Geostrategic mapping of these countries and their geographical proximity to the Egyptian Republic indicates the region’s overall centrality in India’s renewed strategic calibration heightened by its Indo-Pacific overtures.
Egypt controls the Suez Canal, one of the most important chokepoints in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), which connects the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea. Its geographical size makes Cairo an important stakeholder in the Red Sea region which happens to be an inlet of the Indian Ocean between Africa and Asia and plays a significant role in the Indo-Pacific supremacy. This was a major reason why it has been suggested that India should build a military base in Djibouti’s Bab el Mandeb, another important choke point in the IOR, to check China’s strategic footprint in the region.
Interestingly, since last month, Egypt and Djibouti are holding talks to enhance their bilateral relations. Given these strategic dimensions, and Egypt’s balancing act especially when it comes to its relations with the West, the Gulf, Africa as also with Asia, makes it an important strategic partner to deal with. In that context, India’s defence outreach seems unsurprising. In the times to come, there is a possibility of a multilateral engagement in the wider region with India and Egypt playing key roles along with Gulf partners.
Likewise, Indian Foreign Minister’s meeting with the leaders of the US, France, UAE and Egypt on the margins of the 77th session of United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), indicates the formation of a mini-lateral with inter-regional partnership. The potential for a trilateral or a quadrilateral cooperation between Paris, Cairo and New Delhi and likewise Washington, Cairo, Paris and New Delhi stems from their converging geostrategic interests. In non-conventional areas, France, Egypt and India are collectively facing the aftershocks of the European war between Russia and Ukraine which has caused severe stress on energy and food security. A trilateral akin to I2U2 of which India is already a founding member, can help in solving common challenges.
In defence diplomacy, both the US and France are not only India’s strategic partners but leading arms suppliers. They have a similar outreach in the WANA. Interestingly, both the countries have a newfound interest in the WANA and while the US has defence cooperation with both Egypt and UAE, similar arrangements with France are likely given the heightened engagement in 2022. While the defence cooperation primarily aims at expanding India’s defence industry, intensified naval and air force exchanges prior to the signing of an MoU are suggestive of a greater objective being met through Indo-Egyptian engagement. Over emphasis on ‘special friendship’ also indicates that the cooperation is aimed at meeting mutual geostrategic interests of global and regional significance.
Author is an Associate Fellow at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi.
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