2015 will be remembered for bold initiatives at the bilateral, plurilateral and multilateral level
As 2015 draws to an end, it will be remembered for bold initiatives and done deals at the bilateral, plurilateral and multilateral level, which will flourish or flounder depending on how successfully they are implemented. Almost all of these deals—with one or two exceptions—involved India playing a significant rule-shaping role, which made these agreements possible.
At the multilateral level, there were three significant achievements. First, the recently concluded Paris agreement on climate change marked a dramatic breakthrough in efforts to address one of the most formidable global challenges. Second, the adoption by the United Nations (UN) of the ambitious Sustainable Development Goals with a staggering 169 targets was the highlight of the 70th anniversary of the world body. Finally, less publicized, was the hard-fought adoption by UN members of the framework document text, which will form the basis of the Intergovernmental Negotiations (IGN) on the reform of the Security Council. The go-ahead of the IGN process is particularly noteworthy given that China (its lip service to UNSC reforms notwithstanding) used unprecedented political pressure to block it.
All three multilateral agreements will have a direct impact on India’s development and security agenda as well as determine its role in the evolving global governance structure. None of these agreements would have been possible without India and, unlike in the past, India worked with different nations to shape the global rules and also advance its own interests.
At the plurilateral level, the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Iran’s nuclear programme was a major accomplishment to one of the more pressing regional challenges. While India was not part of the negotiations, New Delhi’s decision to strictly adhere to the UN sanctions against Iran and also drastically reduce oil imports played a role in encouraging Tehran to stay the course and conclude the JCPOA.
In contrast, India was instrumental in key decisions made in other plurilateral processes, notably the G-20 summit in Ankara and the BRICS summit in Ufa, which established the New Development Bank. Similarly, its efforts to re-engage with the Indian Ocean region and Africa revealed a new activism, even though India’s efforts paled in comparison to China’s. Beijing was able to out-spend and out-woo New Delhi for the attention of African and Indian Ocean nations through a mixture of loans and investments as well as political clout.
Besides, India also failed to live up to its promise made at Fortaleza that it would host the long overdue India-Brazil-South Africa (IBSA) summit in 2015. The last summit was held in 2011 in South Africa and since then with every passing year, the absence of a summit-level meeting puts IBSA on the verge of extinction.
For India perhaps the greatest foreign policy hurrahs were evident at the bilateral level. Among them, the twin India-US summits—less than six months apart—revived, repaired and re-energized the most promising bilateral relationship for both countries. As Brookings president Strobe Talbott noted, “In a world where there’s a lot of bad news, US-India is good news”. Similar good news was also apparent in the India-Japan relationship, which in an epochal summit last week finally agreed to embark on civil nuclear cooperation.
These bilateral, plurilateral and multilateral agreements are particularly noteworthy given that they occurred in a vastly more chaotic geopolitical and economic world: a rising China staking a claim on disputed territories in the Asia-Pacific region; a Pakistan fraught with difficulties with no solutions in sight; a recalcitrant Russia, under sanctions by the western powers for its intervention in Ukraine; and an inwardly focused United States, bruised after a decade-and-a-half of conflict and reluctant to flex its muscle anymore.
The great initiatives and momentous agreements notwithstanding, these bold deals will come to naught if they fail to be substantially implemented. That will be the enduring challenge of India and other key powers in 2016 and beyond.
This article first appeared in Mint on December 21, 2015. Like other products of the Brookings Institution India Center, this is intended to contribute to discussion and stimulate debate on important issues. The views are those of the author.