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Op-Ed

India’s year of working multilateralism

MINT

This column first appeared in Mint, on January 5, 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.

At the start of every New Year there is an inclination to optimistically consider the glass as half-full even when the reality might be otherwise. This is the case in India’s foreign policy outlook at the bilateral, plurilateral and multilateral level at the beginning of 2015.

At the bilateral level relations with India’s key interlocutors—the US, China, Russia, Japan, Australia, and myriad South Asian and European nations—will be marked by two contradictory trends: cooperation and serious disagreements, if not outright competition or confrontation. The only exception will be Pakistan—barring a bold leadership moment, relations between New Delhi and Islamabad are likely to remain frostily indifferent at best and outrightly hostile at worst.

India’s approach in the plurilateral and multilateral arena is likely to see New Delhi pursue a hedging strategy of engagement and estrangement and will mirror its bilateral prospects. Among the international meetings slated for 2015, five in particular are crucial for India’s twin objectives: to establish a conflict-free neighbourhood and to shape global rules that will impact on India’s ambitious development goals.

The 7th Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summit in July in the Russian industrial town of Ufa (also the seat of the Soviet Ukrainian government during World War II) might become a political stage for Moscow to cock a snook at the West, much to the to the likely chagrin of India and other members. Nonetheless, the summit provides an opportunity to further elaborate the Brics bank mandate while also countering efforts by the hosts to introduce curbs on the open Internet, which has benefited India more than any closed Internet system is likely to do.

The annual UN General Assembly jamboree in September this year in New York will be more significant because it marks the 70th anniversary of the world body and on account of the so-called Post-2015 Millennium Development Goals that aim to eradicate global poverty and the even more ambitious Sustainable Development Goals. The latter’s proposed 169 goals range from reducing inequality to halting bio-diversity loss and are of crucial interest to India. With an eye on permanent membership of the Security Council, India will have to deftly manoeuvre amid the battles between the wealthy nations (with whom it has growing interests) and the poorer ones (which it hopes to represent in the Council).

Turkey, the host of the 10th G-20 summit at Antalya in November, has signalled its intentions to broaden the agenda beyond investment, infrastructure and jobs, to include energy and climate change issues. This will cause some consternation in New Delhi, especially given its possible isolation on climate negotiations (following the US-China deal). For India the summit offers an opportunity to seek a similar deal on climate change, if it has not already done so. Additionally the summit’s focus on small and medium enterprises is also to its advantage.

In December the 21st Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention for Climate Change in Paris will see pressure on India to sign up to a legally binding universal pact on emissions targets. If India fails to make a deal, it will have to avoid being isolated and also offer alternative approaches so that it is not blamed for any failure in Paris.

Finally, the long overdue IBSA (India, Brazil, South Africa) summit to be held in 2015 in India provides a real opportunity to the Narendra Modi government to put its imprimatur on one of the most promising global forums. As an ideal platform to consolidate India’s hard and soft power with that of other rising democracies, IBSA has the potential to build bridges with the established democratic powers, particularly the US.

These five summits have the potential to assist India attain its ambitions but, if not managed deftly, could equally stymie them.

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