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With global institutions in turmoil, India needs to be pragmatic and fleet-footed

India needs all the pragmatism it can muster to pursue its interests in a world where all the major global institutions — from the WHO to the WTO — are experiencing unprecedented turmoil and are heading towards an inevitable restructuring.

Written by C. Raja Mohan |
Updated: April 11, 2020 8:02:08 am
The situation at the WHO is a lot worse. The Director General of WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warns against the dangers of “politicising” the Covid crisis. C R Sasikumar

As many international institutions, including the World Health Organisation and the United Nations Security Council, come under great stress in the corona crisis, Delhi’s multilateral strategy is going through a rapid reorientation. Realists in Delhi recognise that India’s engagement with the UN is not about the pursuit of some higher ideological calling, but the navigation of hardball geopolitics.

Consider the fact that China repeatedly pressed the UN to discuss the Kashmir question after Delhi changed the constitutional status of the region last August. But through last month, as the rotating chair of the UNSC, China blocked any discussion of the Covid crisis. Beijing insisted that the crisis was not a matter of international peace and security that the UNSC ought to bother itself with. A mere internal administrative change in Kashmir, Beijing continues to insist, is a grave threat to international peace and security.

Great powers do what they can, for they can get away with it. With its veto power, Beijing can simply prevent the UNSC from doing anything against China. But what about the secretary general and the UN bureaucracy? Their credibility is not very high these days.

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Secretary General Antonio Guterres, for example, jumped quickly into the Indo-Pak arguments over Kashmir, and raised concerns over India’s Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens. As the virus began to wreak havoc on the world, Guterres went on an extended visit to Pakistan in February and made an ostentatious public offer to mediate between Delhi and Islamabad on Kashmir.

But when it comes to China’s role in the spread of the coronavirus, Guterres can’t seem to find the words. He speaks of a generational challenge that the virus poses to humanity. The UNSG’s exhortations are to the collective and consciously avoid getting into anything specific.

The situation at the WHO is a lot worse. The Director General of WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warns against the dangers of “politicising” the Covid crisis. Many in Europe and the US think that is exactly what Tedros has done at the WHO in the last few months.

Some are calling the criticism of WHO as “scapegoating”. Maybe. When you have nearly 50,000 people dead in just three European countries — Italy, Spain and France — and nearly 17,000 in the US, it is not unreasonable to ask questions about the WHO’s performance during the crisis.

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The current argumentation about the WHO is not just about apportioning blame. There is plenty to go around. What we are witnessing is the breakdown of the multilateral system that emerged from the ashes of the Second World War amidst the deepening contestation between the world’s foremost powers — the US and China.

India’s new multilateralism — as a pragmatic response to external change — involves downplaying some past associations and strengthening new partnerships. Take, for example, two innovations India has made since the end of the Cold War. One was the BRICS forum with Brazil, Russia, China and South Africa and the other was the so-called Quad — a coalition of democracies with Australia, Japan and the US. As India reorders its multilateral priorities amid the corona crisis, the BRICS forum is losing some of its salience and the Quad is gaining traction.

Two of India’s partners in BRICS — Russia and South Africa — had reportedly backed the efforts of a third, China, to prevent a discussion of the COVID crisis in the UNSC. If Delhi were sitting in the UNSC right now as a non-permanent member, it would have had every interest in pressing for a discussion of the COVID crisis that has severely damaged India’s economic and social prospects.
Meanwhile, India is in regular consultations on managing the corona crisis with the “Quad Plus” grouping that draws in South Korea, Vietnam and New Zealand. Neither the BRICS nor the Quad square with the conventional narrative on India’s multilateralism that was dominated in the past by the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and the G-77. As circumstances change, India is finding new international partners to secure its interests.

Recall, for example, the context which gave rise to the BRICS. It started out as a triangular coalition with Russia and China in the mid-1990s. India’s interest in the RIC was borne out of fear of the unipolar moment and Russia’s relentless efforts to draw it into a “strategic triangle” that would resist “American hegemony”.

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In the early 1990s, Delhi was rather wary of the Bill Clinton Administration’s plans to relieve India of its nuclear and missile programmes. What made matters worse was the Clinton Administration’s formulation that “Kashmir is the world’s most dangerous nuclear flashpoint”. This was not just a description; it was accompanied by a prescription for Delhi: Resolve the Kashmir question by sitting down with Pakistan and the Hurriyat. If Delhi needs any help, Washington will be happy to chip in.

Going into a political tent with Russia and China seemed a sensible bet to ward off American pressures on the nuclear and Kashmir questions. Two decades later, we are in a very different place. Take the same two issues — Kashmir and the nuclear programme — that drove India into the BRICS. It is Beijing that wants the UNSC to take up the Kashmir question, and it is Paris and Washington that are preventing it.

Besides the active “internationalisation” of the Kashmir question, China has also resolutely blocked India’s effort to become a full member of the global nuclear order by joining the Nuclear Suppliers Group. On the nuclear front too, it was France and the US that helped India break the nuclear blockade.

China shields Pakistan from international pressures to end cross-border terrorism. And it is India’s partners in the West and the Muslim world that are helping Delhi cope better with violent extremism. These partnerships don’t fit into the paradigms that dominate the public discourse on India’s foreign policy.

Consider the criticism and praise for India for abandoning NAM after the Cold War. Delhi, however, has now begun to reconnect with the so-called global south and is rebuilding its political equities across this vast swath of the developing world.

India has also discovered the new possibilities for engaging Europe in the multilateral arena. If India’s definition of multilateralism — Afro-Asian solidarity — immediately after Independence was defined in opposition to colonial Europe, Delhi now sees Europe as a valuable partner in rearranging the global order. India has joined the “alliance for multilateralism” initiated by Germany and supported by its European partners.

India needs all the pragmatism it can muster to pursue its interests in a world where all the major global institutions — from the WHO to the WTO — are experiencing unprecedented turmoil and are heading towards an inevitable restructuring.

This article first appeared in the print edition of March 11 under the name ‘The new multilateralism’. The writer is director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express

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