The East Asian Summit (EAS) in Myanmar and the global economic gathering in Australia this week give Prime Minister Narendra Modi a valuable opportunity to end Delhi’s defensive multilateralism and affirm the emergence of a self-assured India that can actively shape the international order in Asia and the world.
This week’s back-to-back summitry complements Modi’s intensive bilateral engagement with the leaders of great powers and regional partners over the last six months. As chief minister of Gujarat, Modi had travelled extensively in Asia, and his instincts about China, Japan, Southeast Asia and Australia have served him well in expanding the scope of bilateral relations in the region.
Modi has less exposure to multilateralism. But the PM must trust his own instincts rather than conform to the prevailing canon in the political class and the bureaucratic establishment on the issues to be discussed at the EAS and G-20.
It was the deeply entrenched negativism in Delhi that tripped up Modi on the WTO’s trade facilitation agreement a few months ago and reinforced India’s image as the skunk at the global trade party. Modi has been quick to see the damage and has ordered an intensive negotiation to find a solution to the impasse. A quick closure on trade facilitation and food security would significantly improve Modi’s credibility as an international interlocutor.
Modi has inherited a deeply defensive approach to multilateralism in Delhi. Independent India began as a champion of liberal internationalism, multilateralism and Asian regionalism. By the early 1970s, Delhi’s inward economic orientation and third world radicalism made India increasingly marginal to global economic negotiations. Within Asia, India’s strategic alignment with Soviet Russia put it at odds with its eastern neighbours, including China, and Delhi voluntarily cut itself off from regional institution-building.
Worse still, India emerged as a perverse actor in the multilateral arena, often negotiating against its own interests and becoming a permanent protester. Instead of building a bomb after China tested its first nuclear weapon in 1964, India pushed for the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) which ,when finalised, was an instrument it could not sign. Turning hostile to the NPT, India campaigned for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty from the 1970s and would not accede to it when the world was ready for it.
In the 1980s, India argued against direct broadcast satellites and transborder data flows, two areas where it would eventually develop impressive niche capabilities. At the Uruguay Round, India vehemently argued against the inclusion of services in the new agenda for trade liberalisation.
If the crisis at home and a new wave of economic globalisation in the world compelled India to rethink its multilateral positions, the collapse of the Soviet Union left it no option but to recast its approach to Asia. India’s Look East policy was a product of these circumstances. While Southeast Asia warmly welcomed India, it has found Delhi’s performance in Asean and related Asian institutions underwhelming.
On the security front, the gap between the growing East Asian clamour for a larger Indian role and Delhi’s willingness, as well as ability to deliver, has steadily grown. India’s ministry of defence, under the extended stewardship of A.K. Antony, was reluctant to actively participate in the region’s security forums. And it would not let the armed forces or the ministry of external affairs develop and consolidate India’s defence diplomacy in the region.
India found it even harder to keep pace with Asia’s economic integration. Congress president Sonia Gandhi was opposed to signing free trade agreements with East Asia. It was only the persistence of then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that saw India sign trade liberalisation pacts with Asean, South Korea and Japan.
As in the Congress, there is deep aversion to trade liberalisation in the BJP. In the name of protecting the poor at home, solidarity with the developing world and standing up against the West, both parties have taken positions that have put India at risk of being left out of the new economic dynamism in Asia.
India has indeed agreed to negotiate a trade liberalisation agreement, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, initiated by Asean, but Delhi has shown little enthusiasm to move forward. The US has proposed a more substantive Trans-Pacific Partnership and had no reason to invite India to join in. China has now come up with a wider proposal, the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific, for the members of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec). But India is not a member of the Apec
India’s defensiveness and the consequent international isolation are not limited to trade, but are equally entrenched in other areas like climate change. Overcoming India’s political and bureaucratic inertia, wrapped in the rhetoric of high principle and moralpolitik, is a big challenge for Modi.
For his part, the PM has sought to inject a measure of pragmatism into India’s positions on trade and climate change. Modi has also understood that modernising the Indian economy holds the key to coping with current multilateral challenges. Taking obstreperous positions in global forums does not serve the interests of India, and certainly not those of the poor. Yet Modi’s signals have been too weak, and have not really been reflected in the way his senior ministers and bureaucrats approach multilateral negotiations.\
The EAS and the G-20 summit offer Modi an opportunity to unveil pragmatic Indian multilateralism built around two important strands. One is to emphasise that India will bargain hard to secure its interests but is always prepared to fashion reasonable compromises in multilateral economic negotiations. The other is to underline that India is ready, as a responsible regional power and an emerging global actor, to become a rule-maker, and to stop wavering between being a mere rule-taker and a rule-breaker.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi, and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’