India’s Disenchantment with Multilateralism

India’s initial enthusiasm for multilateralism stemmed from the belief that the global economic governance system would take on board emerging economies’ concerns

India’s decision to pull out of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) summit in Islamabad marks a new milestone in the country’s growing disaffection with regional and multilateral groupings. This discontent was most visible at the G20 summit, which it used for some unsubtle political messaging. Its near-perfunctory chairmanship of the eighth Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) summit raises further questions about its interest in multilateralism.
Is there an impending shift in India’s multilateral policy framework, in much the same way that the recent “surgical strikes” pushed the strategic restraint doctrine? Will the current administration give politics greater weightage in its external policies, which till now had an economic focus? Welcome to the post-Uri policy configuration.
The future of Saarc, perennially hostage to the hyphen dividing India and Pakistan, is now further jeopardized, with Bhutan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka joining India in boycotting the Islamabad summit in November.
The low-key run-up to the eighth Brics leadership summit, scheduled on 15-16 October in Goa under India’s chairmanship, further reveals the political leadership’s fatigue with such associations. Hopefully, this will be reversed when the Brics leaders get together.
India’s stand at the latest G20 summit in Hangzhou also betrayed frustration, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi highlighting Pakistan’s export of terror. This would have seemed logical at any other global gathering, but the G20’s purpose is fostering global financial stability and economic cooperation, not airing political differences. But then, isn’t economics also about politics?
Modi’s outburst against Pakistan at a China-curated G20 summit was strategic. China has repeatedly blocked India’s attempts to enforce a UN-sponsored ban on Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar. In addition, Beijing is going ahead with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a vital component of the One Belt, One Road initiative, which plans to pass through contested territory in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir despite India’s reservations. The last straw perhaps was China’s public opposition to India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group. India also denied China some moments of glory in Hangzhou: It refused to ratify the Paris climate accord there.
There’s also growing global disenchantment with the G20, with the weak structural engineering of this alignment now becoming slowly visible. The Hangzhou summit communique reads much like its predecessors’. It included all the well-intentioned, oft-repeated noises about policy coordination, economic growth, governance, development, inequality. Here’s the problem: The communique lacks a credible path to policy action, or any quantifiable targets. Similar communiques in the past have also helped create an atmosphere of scepticism. For example, the 2014 Brisbane summit had announced a policy framework for increasing global gross domestic product by an additional 2% by 2018, predicated on large-scale infrastructure investments. The International Monetary Fund’s staff note for the 2016 summit says the target looks unattainable because of low investment rates in most advanced economies. Consequently, analysts are rushing to publish the G20’s untimely obituary (
The G20’s shaky foundations can be traced to the circumstances of its birth. It was created in 1999—primarily as a reaction to the 1997 Asian financial crisis—as a platform for finance ministers and central bankers to discuss international financial and monetary policies, global economic trends and reform of multilateral financial institutions. In November 2008, then US president George W. Bush invited global leaders to Washington, DC to discuss a coordinated global response to the financial crisis. This became the G20’s first leadership summit, and provided the defining character of its birth: a fire-fighting unit masquerading as a global policy coordination body.
Logically, therefore, once the immediate hump of the crisis was crossed, the G20’s utility seemed diminished. Some good examples are the US’ disregard for policy coordination preceding the taper tantrum, resulting in tough times for emerging economies—and the slow progress in reforming the shareholding of Bretton Woods institutions.
The director of Globality Inc., Rebecca Liao, writes in Foreign Affairs: “Instead of coordinating economic policy among the world’s wealthiest countries, it (G20) broadened its scope to include climate change, investment initiatives, and human rights. Since its members are largely unable to come to a meaningful consensus on this expanded range of issues, the G20 then became a think tank of sorts.”
India’s enthusiasm for multilateralism stemmed from the belief that the global economic governance system would take on board the concerns of emerging economies. That hope now looks dashed, with slow progress on most issues. Add to that India’s concerns on terrorism going unheeded on global multilateral platforms. Consequently, it is quite likely that India’s policy architecture might acquire a slight bias towards bilateralism, given Modi’s predilection for one-on-one engagement with world leaders. There are also some indications of the foreign policy needle shifting slightly towards politics.

This column was originally written as an Op-Ed for Mint newspaper and can be read here 

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