India’s policy of multi-engagement and the BRICS

November 22, 2020 12:42 PM

The West has been exceedingly slow in initiating institutional reforms and making them more representative. It does recognize the value for reforms but has repeatedly procrastinated the process.

To put pressure on the Western countries, it would align with Russia, China, Brazil and South Africa as in the BRICS. (Photo source: Reuters)

By Rajan Kumar

India’s aspiration to play a meaningful role in the global governance encounters two conspicuous roadblocks: the reluctance of the privileged Western states to reform the institutions of global governance created after the end of the World War II; and an alternative political and economic model of governance accompanying the rise of China.

The West has been exceedingly slow in initiating institutional reforms and making them more representative. It does recognize the value for reforms but has repeatedly procrastinated the process. As a consequence, these institutions are turning ineffective and their legitimacy has eroded over the years.

China, while paying lip-service to the rules and norms of global governance is selective in its approach. It adheres to some favourable rules, but blatantly flouts others that are detrimental to its commercial and geopolitical interests. For instance, it would like to preserve the regime of free trade, but dismiss the norms of freedom, human rights and respect for the sovereignty of weaker states as liberal fantasies. Its policy in the South China Sea clearly violates international law. Its model of ‘state capitalism’ is incompatible with the liberal world order based on free private enterprises. Private companies do not possess the resources and political clout to compete against the state-sponsored companies in China. This distorts the regime of open and free trade and is leading to the onset of trade and technology-wars between China and other countries.

International politics has not been particularly favourable to India. In the long four decades of the Cold War, the West created several regimes discriminatory to India. India had to bargain hard with powerful countries including China to gain concessions from the restrictive regimes of the Nuclear Supply Group. The Security Council of the United Nations is still beyond its reach. It became a member of the G-20 when the G-7 expanded, but its role in agenda-setting and decision making is limited in financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation.

Therefore, India faces a unique dilemma in its engagement with major powers. To put pressure on the Western countries, it would align with Russia, China, Brazil and South Africa as in the BRICS. Whilst to balance the aggressive behaviour of China, it would forge partnerships with the US, Japan and Australia as in the Quad. In international relations, this is known as a strategy of hedging and balancing. But for critics, this is a“promiscuous” strategy demonstrating the lack of confidence in forging alliances.

From India’s point of view, it is a deliberate strategy to guard its interests in a world of uncertainty and shifting balance. In the words of S Jaishankar, Minister of External Affairs, “If India drove the revived Quad arrangement, it also took membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. A long-standing trilateral with Russia and China coexist now with one involving the US and Japan. These apparently contradictory developments only illustrate the world in which we now operate.”

India does not have the luxury of picking one against the other. In its pursuit of national interests, it relies on several countries: for defence requirements- it is heavily dependent on Russia; for trade, technology and the FDI it looks to the West, Japan and even China; for energy security- it depends on the countries of West Asia, and for political stability and security it has to keep balancing its neighbours in South Asia.

Therefore, it vigorously defends its policy of multi-engagement. There is a bipartisan consensus on this policy. The previous UPA and later the NDA regime followed this strategy. For instance, soon after the successful approval of the landmark Indo-US Civil Nuclear Deal (2008), India decided to join the BRIC as a founding member in 2009. The policy of multi-engagement helps India maintain its strategic autonomy in external affairs.

The membership of the BRICS elevated the profile of India by placing it in a privileged club, consisting of two Security Council members, and in the league of leaders of the emerging world. It acquired a status not open to countries like Pakistan, Turkey, Argentina and Nigeria. India came to be viewed as a regional leader willing to take on larger responsibilities of global governance.

The presence of Russia in the organisation imbues a sense of comfort to India. It does not feel overwhelmed by the overbearing presence of China. The successive regimes in India has tried hard to maintain a cordial relation with China. But as it happens in international politics- misperceptions and great power rivalry often trump the goodwill accumulated through years of multilateralism.

The BRICS consists of countries which are geographically distant, share no common ideology and have discrete political systems and cultures. China is a Communist authoritarian, Russia a super-presidential system, and three others are working democracies at various continuum. There is a huge asymmetry in terms of the distribution of power. China is an economic powerhouse; Russia has the second powerful military in the world; while India has managed to sustain a model of democratic development. Despite dissimilarities, they have managed to come together because they share grievances over the hierarchical global. The creation of the New Development Bank and the Contingency Reserve Arrangement was the most significant step towards institutionalisation.

India’s incentives are clearly different from that of Russia and China. Russia and China consider this organisation as an instrument to offset the global clout of the West. China’s two primary objectives are: to cut down the influence of the US and to gain access to markets and resources of the developing countries. China would like to associate this organisation to its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative project.

India does not carry any revisionist impulse in the BRICS. Its main objectives, as articulated by Prime Minister Modi during the 12th virtual summit of the BRICS (17 November 2020), are: reforming international institutions; mobilising support to counter-terrorism; and, enhancing trade and economic cooperation amongst the member states. To its satisfaction, the 12th summit, hosted by Russia, adopted a BRICS-Strategy to counter the menace of global terrorism by sharing information, curbing finances to terrorist groups and taking steps to check radicalisation. There was no reference to any specific group or country in the strategy. China resists India’s efforts to name terrorist groups from Pakistan. India raised the issue of terrorism in all BRICS meetings. At the Xiamen BRICS Summit (2017), Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba were included in the list of terrorist groups.

The 12th Summit also adopted a Strategy for BRICS Economic Partnership 2025. It focuses on digital transformation, the fourth industrial revolution, sustainable development and a strategy for tackling the issue of climate change.

The rising cloud of protectionism, hyper-nationalism, pandemic and economic slowdown has affected the spirit of the BRICS. It fell far short of expectations in providing leadership to the world in coordinating efforts to tackle the coronavirus crisis. Instead, China and India got embroiled in a deadly military standoff amid pandemic. The spectre of a border conflict poses a terminal risk to the viability of this organisation.

(The author teaches in School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Views are personal)

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