S Jaishankar, minister of external affairs, at Raisina Dialogue, 2023
The recently concluded Raisina Dialogue 2023 gives us an understanding of critical global headwinds. Issues of climate change adoption and accessibility to climate finance, securing supply chains and resolving the food, fuel and fertiliser conflict were discussed in the dialogue. Tackling such challenges requires a global coordination mechanism and multilateral institutions. But the failure of current multilateral institutions to resolve these issues is a cause for worry.
The Raisina Dialogue also exhibited India’s approach to achieving its foreign policy objectives. Panel discussions on BIMSTEC, BRICS, the Quad, the Indo-Pacific and a new cooperation framework among democracies showcase India’s priority of working through minilaterals. The choice of this channel to further India’s foreign policy is made in a world where the US is withdrawing and when the UN is faltering. In this context, it is crucial for us to understand why these multilateral institutions have declined, why minilaterals are on the rise and what should be India’s way forward as a pole in the world order.
The Decline of Multilateral Institutions
The multilateral institutions of global governance were created by the victors of the second world war to propagate the western liberal order. This system was imposed on developing countries without context sensitivity. The proponents of the western liberal order even declared the ‘End of History’ after the fall of the USSR in 1991. This gave the multilateral institutions greater dominance till the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) hit in 2008. The proponents of multilateral institutions started withdrawing from their roles as keepers of this global order after the GFC. This was at a time when middle powers were disgruntled with these institutions over the fact that they did not reflect the changing global dynamics. This led to a decline in the efficacy of multilateral institutions. The power struggle between the US and China has further vitiated the working of these institutions. The questions raised over the working of the World Health Organisation (WHO) during the Covid-19 pandemic and the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) over the Xinjiang issue are reflective of a new reality. A common criticism against multilateral institutions is the red tape and large bureaucracies that delay decisions by their archaic processes.
Rise of Minilateralism
Middle powers like India, South Korea, UAE, etc. have raised their stature in the global arena through impressive economic growth and independent foreign policy orientation. These powers propound a multi-networked and multi-polar world order bereft from great power hegemony. For instance, India is using a multi-alignment policy through its bilateral and minilateral relations in pursuit of strategic autonomy. These minilaterals are issue-specific consisting of member nations having common interests. India’s participation in such minilaterals has a neighbourhood, extended neighbourhood, security and strategic balancing elements.
In its neighbourhood, India is part of minilaterals like the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN) initiative, India-Myanmar-Thailand (IMT) Trilateral and the India-Bangladesh-Russia Trilateral Cooperation. These minilaterals are India’s tools to actualise the Neighbourhood First Policy.
In its extended neighbourhood, Chabahar port has become a node for two trilateral bodies, India-Iran-Afghanistan and India-Iran-Uzbekistan. These trilateral groups are working to connect Central Asia with India and South Asia. India also engages with regional cooperation minilaterals through summits like the ASEAN-India, India-CARICOM, and the India-EU. India has also created regional fora in the extended neighbourhood such as the Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC) and the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI).
India is also a member of geographically incongruous minilaterals. They serve two purposes, maintaining strategic autonomy and ensuring regional security. India’s policy of strategic autonomy is reflected in its membership in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). As a member of QUAD, India is cooperating with the US, Japan, and Australia, to work on the Indo-Pacific security architecture. And as a member of SCO, India is working with China, Russia, and Central Asian Republics on the Eurasian security architecture. Through these minilaterals, India is securing its interests on both sides of the global power aisles.
Another aspect of India’s minilateral membership is to create a grouping of like-minded nations on specific issues. In pursuit of this, India has formed the India-France-Australia, India-Italy-Japan, and India-Australia-Indonesia trilaterals focused on the Indo-Pacific region. These minilaterals are India’s way of co-opting partners with similar interests in the Indo-Pacific framework. Further, the India-France-UAE trilateral is focused on nuclear and solar energy cooperation, fighting climate change and biodiversity conservation, especially in the Indian Ocean Region. And the India-Israel-USA-UAE (I2U2) grouping has been formed to solve transnational challenges in the areas of water, energy, transportation, space, health and food security.
India has evolved from being a balancing power to a stabilizing force in the geopolitical landscape. As India positions itself as a strong pole in the multi-polar world order, it has to perform a tightrope walk. On the one hand, lies India’s pursuit of strategic autonomy which is being followed through minilaterals. And on the other hand, India has to stay true to its declared philosophy of Sarve Sukhinah Bhavantu through active participation in multilateral institutions and processes. In this scenario, India needs to push for reforms at the multilateral level to safeguard a universal rules-based framework while utilising the minilateral route in the short term.