Redirecting Multilateralism: Will India Seize the Opportunity?


India is a rising power, a necessary player when it comes to regional and international security, global trade, as well as climate action. There has been some change in its approach and strategy in these policy fields, whenever multilateral efforts benefit national interests.

Prime Minister of India
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Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India, addresses the United Nations summit for the adoption of the post-2015 development agenda.

The international order is in a precarious state. Key countries, like the United States, who have led campaigns to address global challenges appear uninterested in contributing or even participating. Divisions between the US and Europe on burden-sharing vis-à-vis global public goods are out in the open. Unfortunately, transatlantic divisions have been laid bare when the vacuum at the heart of global governance could be filled by competing, fundamentally different, notions of world order advanced by illiberal powers like Russia and China. Soon enough, conflicts spoiling global rule-making could shift from being purely political to ideological, making them intractable to address. Should an ideological battle consume global governance, we can foresee a bifurcated international order that rests on starkly different world views: Western powers on one side alongside partners like India and Japan who prefer an open and free international economic system with rules to resolve disputes, and revisionist powers like China and Russia whose power rests on spreading illiberal forms of political and economic governance. In such a scenario, the international order could require ‘swing states’ like India to step-up and contribute more to help address policy challenges like protectionism, climate change and freedom of navigation in the global commons. Can India play this role?

While India's long term economic and security interests align with an international order that remains liberal, expecting New Delhi to assume a proactive role independent of contingent development exigencies could be a hard sell. Historically, India’s multilateral positions have  frustrated western interlocutors annoyed by what they perceive as Delhi’s disinclination to help address challenges like climate change and nuclear proliferation. India has long been branded as a multilateral ‘naysayer’ and ‘obstructionist’, unwilling to accept global commitments when necessary. Such claims, however, are overstated and not reflective of recent realities. The last three decades have seen India integrate and embed itself within the international order, a development largely a function of India’s stellar economic rise. Interdependence has generated convergence but not necessarily compliance. Broadly, the nature of India’s multilateral engagement has fundamentally shifted, reflecting India’s economic ascent that has widened core interests. From the early 1990s, Indian negotiators have become strategic, looking to cut deals, making compromises when necessary and avoiding pledges that appear as constraints. Looking ahead, India should help address global challenges when doing so redounds to the benefit of India's economic transformation writ large and forswear commitments that constrain the latter. A strategic sense of multilateral engagement comes through when we consider India’s policies in three areas - climate change, trade and maritime security.

Climate change-related interests: from inaction to action

India’s stances at climate negotiations have remained largely consistent. India has advanced a politics of equity that decisively influenced how global climate discussions allocate mitigation responsibilities anchored on incumbent levels of development. Developed countries, for India, held greater burdens in terms of reducing the impacts of climate change. Delhi relentlessly defended this notion until the 2000s when pressures accompanying India’s economic growth compelled New Delhi to revise its foundational climate policy to accept certain obligations. the shift, however, was nominal; the new policy emphasis was to make India more flexible to carbon concessions given rising climate vulnerabilities to India’s coastline, energy usage and economic bottom line. Growth has reoriented India’s climate interests toward action, not inaction; these shifts have produced a new ‘climate identity’ that allows India to shed its climate naysayer tag by internalizing and enacting climate obligations that generate co-benefits – both economic and climate. India’s concessions at the Paris Agreement in 2015 indicate some continuity exemplified by a desire to accept obligations that are “nationally determined”. At this years’ United Nations General Assembly, Prime Minister Modi reaffirmed India’s commitment to fulfil its nationally determined contributions (NDC). The Modi government has instituted robust energy efficiency policies that ensure India’s emissions meet the Paris target of capping temperature increases to 1.5 degrees’ Celsius despite plans to build more coal plants. India’s focus on renewable energy through its leadership of the International Solar Alliance (ISA) serves as an alternate pathway to deter harmful climate impacts. India’s multilateral climate agenda springs out of targeted domestic climate initiatives. That said, India’s climate differentiation tack persists; the strategy is still used to rebuff unequal climate pledges since development is the prism through which climate targets are accepted.

India’s stance on trade: between conditional liberalization and protectionism

Like climate, India’s trade postures have liberalized since the late 1980s driven by rational considerations focused on securing market concessions where India has a competitive advantage like trade in services. Since the Uruguay round, Indian negotiators have relied on preferential and multilateral trade agreements to secure markets for Indian services exports, namely information technology and highly skilled professionals. India’s open-minded attitude for trade is less evident when it comes to merchandise goods which continue to remain uncompetitive. These industries remain highly protected by New Delhi; not only do industries like manufacturing and agriculture receive sops from the government, Indian trade officials tussle to extract sufficient safeguards at trade negotiations that presumably give Indian firms time to become more competitive before market protections ebb. India’s recent decision to withdraw from the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement (RCEP) is partly attributable to the inability to obtain sufficient safeguards against Chinese imports that would have flooded the Indian market had India signed RCEP. Protectionist instincts remain. The struggles of Indian manufacturing and agriculture and successes of the Indian software industry produce a trade policy that is both protectionist and free. India will bat for a freer multilateral trading system when market concessions generate net benefits for all domestic interest groups, a seemingly difficult outcome in the best of times. India will also resist trade agreements that expand the trade remit to cover issues like e-commerce, labour and environmental standards that require regulatory harmonisation between countries. A key question going ahead will be how multilateral trade regimes like the WTO deal with countries like India that is an economic powerhouse but also a developing country that confronts massive challenges related to poverty and underdevelopment. Should advanced industrialized countries give necessary flexibilities and exemptions to India, despite its systemic impact and size, India will be inclined to reject calls for protectionism. Liberalization is conditional and phased for New Delhi.

Comporting visions and joint activities in the Indo-Pacific

India has also emerged as a key actor on the maritime security front. Factors driving India's interest and involvement across the Indian Ocean range from growing strategic competition among major powers, piracy, illegal fishing, humanitarian disasters and the need to keep sea lanes open for oil and commercial trade. New Delhi remains concerned about Chinese naval activity in the Indian ocean; India’s ‘Indo-Pacific’ vision comports with that of the EU and United States particularly regarding China. The Indian ocean had largely been devoid of strategic competition and conflict which allowed India to ignore the littoral; instead, a largely stable maritime environment enabled New Delhi to focus on continental security threats. Those days are over. Yet, despite a clear interest and desire in securing the Indian Ocean, mechanisms India has relied on, and invested in, have been bilateral not multilateral. We still lack a truly effective regional organization in the Indian Ocean. Coordination gaps between the Indian Ocean Rim Organization (IORA) and Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) have left participating countries unsure of how they can collectively mobilise against security threats. Both regional bodies have focused on enhancing cooperation when disasters and accidents occur while building regional maritime surveillance capacity. To fill the void, India has used bilateral and trilateral frameworks, particularly joint naval exercises, with countries like the United States, Australia, Singapore and France for strategic signalling. These exercises allow New Delhi to demonstrate her willingness to respond to China’s naval forays and challenge Beijing's coercive ambitions across the Indian Ocean. India will likely rely on bilateral defence partnerships with powers like the US and France, that form one part of a larger military relationship, to advance its core security interests instead of helping create a rules-based structure for maritime governance around the Indian ocean that could have an enduring impact.

Multilateralism for strategic and national interests

India’s multilateral approach is not obstructionist nor is it driven by a desire to impede multilateral efforts to address salient global challenges. In an era when global governance is characterised by gridlock and competing visions of international order, India will not automatically choose to uphold the liberal international system that has enabled its rise. What we should expect from India is a strategic multilateralism where domestic interests influence and drive whether and how it helps address issues like climate change, protectionism and maritime insecurity. But there is one silver lining - with sustained economic growth, India’s interests and stakes within the international order will deepen which will leave New Delhi little choice but work with ideologically like-minded partners like the United States and the European Union to ensure the international order remains open and stable. But that outcome, I suspect, will be no less contentious or burdensome.