This column first appeared in Mint, on October 27, 2014. 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.
If previous months witnessed a packed bilateral calendar with significant initiatives between India and Australia, Japan, China and the US, then the coming month alone will provide New Delhi with multiple opportunities to make similar efforts in the multilateral arena.
Starting with the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit outside Beijing on 10-11 November, followed by the East Asia Summit (EAS) in Naypyidaw on 11-12 November, the Group of Twenty (G-20) summit in Brisbane on 15-16 November, and finally the much anticipated South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (Saarc) summit in Kathmandu on 26-27 November these meetings offer India a chance to advance its ambitious development agenda and reinforce its credentials as one of the key actors in an emerging multipolar world. However, New Delhi’s ability to use these opportunities will depend on its capability to manage the challenges that overshadows each of the meetings.
The first challenge is the ongoing spat between Moscow and the West. Given that Russia is a member of three of these groupings, the unfolding tragedy in Ukraine has the potential in the short term to derail the ambitious agendas of these meetings and in the long term to damage the groups and India’s interests itself. How it is resolved will have significant implications for these groups and other potential international disputes.
The forthcoming G-20 summit, hosted by Washington’s ally Australia, saw the most serious efforts to keep Russia out of the meet. While better sense, coupled with strong objection by India and other Brics countries, prevailed to keep Moscow in, Russia’s presence (and the sanctions imposed on it by other G-20 countries) could still adversely affect the deliberations.
While there is little possibility of Russia being uninvited from either the APEC or the EAS summit (by hosts China and Myanmar respectively), its presence and the squabble could still overshadow the objectives of the meets.
Though India has been silent on Russia’s unilateral use of force to change borders (given New Delhi’s similar experience with Pakistan over Kargil in 1999), New Delhi has been reluctant to get involved in the Ukrainian imbroglio. However, given India’s special relationship with Russia there is an opportunity for New Delhi to try and work behind the scenes at these summits to explore possible solutions. This would not only benefit India’s development agenda, it would also enhance its stature as a global peacemaker.
Similarly, the series of initiatives, led by China, to establish alternative global governance structures, particularly financial institutions, poses both challenges and opportunities to the forthcoming summits.
The recently announced Brics New Development Bank and China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank are perceived to be rivals of the West-led World Bank and International Monetary Fund, though they are equally driven by the investment needs of emerging economies. Again, New Delhi, which has a stake in the reform of the existing financial institutions (being held back by the US Congress) as well as the funds that the new institutions can offer, could use the three summits to try and bridge the mistrust. The benefits of doing so outweigh the risks.
In contrast the Saarc summit, for which there are the least expectations (given the state of India-Pakistan relations), might hold the most promise for India’s development and global agenda. Starting with the bold invitation to Saarc leaders to his inauguration Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not only reached out to the neighbours at the bilateral level but has also proposed multilateral cooperation. In particular his idea of a Saarc satellite is noteworthy.
In addition, opportunities for cooperation through Saarc on crossborder disaster management and mitigation, energy, education, health and even international terrorism and peacekeeping are areas ripe for India’s initiative and leadership. The 18th summit is the ideal setting to reinvigorate Saarc.