The Success and Limitation of India’s Multilateral Diplomacy

China International Studies | 作者: Huang Zhengduo | 时间: 2014-01-26 | 责编: Li Xiaoyu
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by Huang Zhengduo



Beginning from the advent of the 21st century, the world has increasingly shifted toward multi-polarization, and international relations are becoming normalized and institutionalized due to economic globalization and regional integration. The concept of multilateralism has gained currency in the international community and become a cornerstone of international relations.[1] In this context, India highlights multilateral diplomacy in its foreign strategy, and enthusiastically engages in the construction of multilateral systems.


I. Policy-making in and Implementation of Multilateral Diplomacy


During the Cold War, India preferred bilateral exchanges in its conduct of foreign policy, and shunned multilateral approaches.[2] In the 21st century, India became aware that traditional bilateral exchanges and cooperation would be insufficient for it to be able to respond adequately to the challenges of the new era: creating peace and prosperity in South Asian subcontinent; building a stable architecture for peace and cooperation in Asia; and making a positive and meaningful contribution to global governance.[3] Bearing these factors in mind, on the basis of developing relationships with major powers, India has formed a multilateral diplomacy strategy with the United Nations at its heart, and focuses on regional multilateral organizations. In 2004, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described India’s international philosophy as “cooperative pluralism”.[4] India’s multilateral diplomacy has made great progress under this strategy.


1. Consolidating cooperation with the UN and other international organizations

India has always prioritized cooperation with the UN. Since achieving its independence, India has demonstrated its “wholehearted cooperation and unreserved support” for the UN. During the Cold War, in light of its outstanding performance in decolonization, calls for global disarmament and its leading role in the Non-Aligned Movement, India was the spokesperson in the UN for the interests of Asian, African and Latin American countries. In the 21st century, India has played an active role as an advocate and supporter of nuclear disarmament, counter-terrorism, human rights and environmental protection, and plays an active role in the UN and multilateral actions in response to an array of global issues, including all peacekeeping operations.

India also plays a key role at the UN in the the campaign for a more equitable international economic order.[5] India is also an active supporter and advocate of UN reform. In October 2012, during the general debate of the 67th UN General Assembly, then-Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna called for reform of the UN Security Council to match the reality of the international situation in order to adequately meet emerging global challenges.

India has intensified multilateral ties with the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization and other important international organizations, and calls for the reform of the World Bank and IMF. To this effect, the Indian government has issued an appeal to the international community stating that: “The World Bank (Bank) — International Monetary Fund (Fund) shareholding do not represent the current global distribution of income and power and should be restructured to do so.”[6]


2. Raising its position in the international multilateral mechanisms by restoring relations with the US and European powers

India’s foreign policy during the Cold War was decidedly pro-Soviet and anti-Western. Following the break-up of the Soviet Union, India gradually abandoned its opposition to Western colonialism and hegemony, and restored and developed its relationship with the United States and European powers.

Indian-US relations have improved rapidly since the beginning of the 21st century. US President Bill Clinton paid an official visit to India in 2000 — 22 years since the last visit by a US president. In July 2005, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made an official visit to the United States, with the latter recognizing that India is “a responsible country with advanced nuclear technology”. In November 2010, US President Barack Obama, when visiting India, explicitly expressed support for India’s campaign to become a permanent member of UN Security Council. In September 2013, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited the United States. From June 2010 to June 2013, India and the US have held four strategic dialogues, raising bilateral relations to a new level.

Along with its improvement in relations with the United States, India has also been actively engaged in diplomacy with the European Union. India and the EU established a summit meeting mechanism in 2000, and began holding regular Indian-EU summits. In 2005, the two sides formally established the Indian-EU strategic partnership. The EU is now India’s largest trading partner and an important source of investment. The restoration and development of India’s relations with the United States and the European powers has laid the groundwork for India to join and play an important role in Western-led international multilateral institutions.


3. Advancing exchanges and cooperation with developing countries within multilateral mechanisms

The deepening of regional integration and globalization prompted India to focus on regional economic integration and other multilateral organizations. As the largest member of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), India has actively promoted the free flow of goods, personnel and capital in the SAARC, and established the South Asian economic community. In 2007, at the 14th SAARC Summit held in New Delhi, India pushed the summit to approve a series of agreements and measures aimed at strengthening cooperation among member states. The theme of the 2011 Maldives SAARC Summit was “building bridges”, reflecting the desire of all South Asian nations, including India, to expand mutual understanding and multifaceted cooperation within this region, as well as between the SAARC and the rest of the world.

India has always prioritized its relations with Southeast Asian countries.[7] As ASEAN serves as a bridge connecting the Asia-Pacific region, and even the world economy, strengthening multilateral cooperation with ASEAN not only helps promote the Indian economy’s engagement with the world economy, but also helps to establish a secure maritime trade route. To this end, India strives to implement the “Look East” strategy to enhance political and economic relations with ASEAN. In November 2002, India established the Leaders’ Meeting mechanism with ASEAN.

India has also increased its cooperation with the African Union and other regional multilateral organizations. India’s long-term support for African countries in their anti-colonial and national liberation movements has earned it a great deal of prestige. In recent years, India has attached more importance to Africa and conducted comprehensive economic cooperation with African countries through multilateral organizations such as the African Union, the East African Community, the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation, and the India - Brazil - South Africa Initiative.

India is also actively engaged in the reform of multilateral cooperation mechanisms such as the G77 and the Non-Aligned Movement. Although these mechanisms have been in existence for a long time, the cooperation concept, developmental direction and working style of these mechanisms requires appropriate amendment and adjustment. To this effect, India is playing a significant role in improving these mechanisms.


4. Attaching importance to cooperation with emerging economies, and actively participating in the construction of multilateral cooperation mechanisms

Emerging economies have further consolidated economic cooperation in recent years, reaching a greater consensus on major international and regional issues, and started playing an important role in a number of international multilateral mechanisms. India, China, and Russia established a trilateral cooperation mechanism. The three countries, together with Brazil and South Africa, formed the “BRICS”. In both mechanisms, India joined with other member states to promote the multi-polarization and democratization of international relations, and safeguard the rights and interests of India and other developing countries, in order to realize fully realize their political and economic objectives. India is responding to the challenges of climate change, counter-terrorism and energy security along with other developing countries through mechanisms such as the SCO, BASIC and the Five Major Developing Nations (China, Brazil, India, South Africa and Mexico).


II. Dynamics of Implementing Multilateral Diplomacy


In an era of growing prosperity in multilateral mechanisms and increased global communication, India actively promotes multilateral diplomacy and engages in the building of international multilateral mechanisms primarily to preserve national security, enhance its international status and advance economic development.


1. Multilateral diplomacy promotes global strategic balance and a multi-polar world

India’s non-aligned policy formulated in the global bipolar structure was severely tested after the break-up of the Soviet Union. To adapt to the international situation following the Cold War, India had to revamp its foreign policy and adjusted its diplomatic relations with major powers, to resume the strategic balance in South Asia. India contended that it can help the world move toward multipolarization, and therefore better safeguard the global strategic balance.

In the wake of the global financial crisis and the European debt crisis, Western countries’ relative strength started to decline, while emerging economies and developing countries have shown strong growth and enhanced their strength. This shift had an important impact on the global situation. Emerging economies maintain the same or similar positions on some major political and global issues and speak with one voice. They have raised their position and discursive power in the global arena, propelling the world order toward multipolarization. As an important representative of emerging economies and developing countries, India has called many times at platforms such as the BRICS and the China-India-Russia trilateral mechanism to strengthen developing countries’ international poli-tical cooperation and actively promote the multipolarization of the world and the democratization of international relations within multilateral mechanisms, with a view to preserving the rights and interests of India and developing countries.


2. Economic reforms drive requirement for comprehensive diplomatic relations

In 1991, India launched economic reforms oriented toward liberalization, a market-based economy and privatization. India’s diplomat priority is to support domestic economic reform and create a favorable international environment for its economic development.

India’s rapid economic growth has facilitated its efforts to integrate into the global community. Foreign trade accounts for more than 40% of India’s GDP. India needs to import a huge amount of energy and mineral resources every year in order to sustain its high-speed economic growth. India has come to shape the new international concept of actively participating in global multilateral governance, and preparing to actively undertake international responsibilities. This is “not because of ideological reasons, but for practical interests.”[8] India’s engagement with global economic organizations, emerging economies, and developed and developing countries proves to be conducive to achieving optimum resource allocation, broad market space, and adequate funding and technology from its foreign economic cooperation. However, with its rapid economic development, as problems in terms of energy security, sea route security, free trade and cooperation become more prominent issues, India needs to strengthen exchanges and interaction within multilateral mechanisms with other countries in order to adequately response to the varied challenges resulting from globalization.


3. Enhancing India’s global status and realizing major-power status

Ever since achieving independence India has aimed to become an “impressive big power”. However, restrained by economic underdevelopment and the international situation, India has failed to achieve its goal of becoming a major player in global affairs. Its soaring national strength in recent years has prompted India to accelerate its diplomatic efforts to pursue its goal of becoming a major power. Multilateral diplomacy is the main channel for India to expand its influence and elevate global status.

India is keen to increase its influence and assume a more formal role to match its growing strength in some international agencies, including the UN Security Council.[9] Regarding India’s urgent desire to achieve this objective, Martin Wolf, chief economics commentator of the British newspaper The Financial Times recommended, “Exhausted by the burden of its pretensions, the UK should soon offer its seat on the security council of the United Nations to its former colony”.[10] With regard to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, India expects that it can get more voting rights at the World Bank, and that influence in the IMF should tilt toward BRICS countries and other developing countries. India clearly lacks the capabilities to single-handedly challenge the international political and economic systems. The best way for India to increase its say and protect its national interests is to participate in and form various multilateral mechanisms in line with its different interests. For example, in order to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council, India, together with Brazil, Germany and Japan, formed the “four-nation alliance” (G4) in 2005, requesting additional permanent and non-permanent seats. In June 2009, the leaders of India, China, Brazil and Russia held their first summit meeting, declaring the formation of the “BRIC”. When referring to joining the “BRIC”, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said, “An important goal of BRIC countries is to reform the global governance mechanisms to reflect the current reality of the international community.”[11]


III. The Impact of India’s Multilateral Diplomacy and Its Constraints


1. The effectiveness of India’s multilateral diplomacy

India enjoys a pivotal position in today’s multilateral forums, which is mostly due to its growing economic strength, political stability and nuclear capabilities.[12] It goes without saying that this is inseparable from India’s efforts in multilateral diplomacy, which has played a key role in promoting economic development, safeguarding its national interests and enhancing India’s international status.

First, sufficiently enhancing India’s major-power status.

In the international multilateral arena, India, on its own or through aligning with other developing countries, can get its voice heard in the international community. At the G8 Summit held in Italy in July 2009, US President Barack Obama stressed that, in response to global challenges, it will not work without China, India and Brazil and other important countries. On the issue of climate change, the “Basic Four” — including India — has played an important role in international climate negotiations, playing a vitally important role in safeguarding developing countries’ interests.

The rise of India in the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean regions has attracted global attention. In the Asia-Pacific, India became an observer of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in July 2005. In 2011, India applied for the membership of the SCO, which was supported by Russia. The United States and Russia both supported India’s membership of APEC, the world’s largest regional economic cooperation organization. India also takes advantage of the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC) as a platform to gain important influence in the Indian Ocean region. India’s position in the Asia-Pacific region and globally is certain to be enhanced along with the significant growth of the Indian Ocean region’s importance in terms of its strategic position.

Second, providing a stable external environment for domestic economic development

India’s recent rapid economic and social development has led to surging demand for natural resources and foreign capital. As a result, ensuring a stable supply of resources and capital has become an important task for the Indian government. The Indian media has pointed out that the crux of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s foreign policy in the post-crisis era is promoting capital inflows to support India’s investment system and using advanced technologies as a good opportunity to realize rapid development, while ensuring that economic development will not be restrained by a lack of natural resources.[13] To this end, India, on the one hand, attracts more foreign direct investment by improving its investment environment; on the other hand, it strengthens cooperation with countries with abundant natural resources and advanced technologies through international multilateral mechanisms in order to provide a stable external environment for its domestic economic environment. Cooperation between the BRICS countries is a typical example of this. In order to tackle their lack of infrastructure funds, India and the other BRICS countries strengthened their cooperation to enhance infrastructure financing, mainly by establishing a BRICS infrastructure funds to absorb idle social capital and other institutional funds, and offering tax concessions to institutions and individuals investing in infrastructure. India has made substantial and fruitful efforts in this field.[14]

Third, effectively safeguarding national security

In the wake of 9/11, India’s national security has faced more complex challenges. In addition to traditional security threats, it is believed in India that external terrorist organizations and piracy threaten India’s domestic security, citizens and passing ships, while ethnic separatist forces and religious conflicts challenges its domestic security. Faced with such a complex domestic and international security situation where no country can respond alone, India has no other choice to resolve its security dilemma but to cooperate with external forces. Beginning at the turn of the century, India has conducted non-traditional security cooperation including fighting terrorism and combating piracy under the mechanisms of BRICS, the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation, ASEAN, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, greatly improving its security environment. At the same time, cooperation in multilateral mechanisms has not only deepened mutual understanding and political trust between member states, and reduced political friction and trade disputes, but also served to restrain or alleviate security pressures from major powers outside the region.


2. Factors restraining India’s multilateral diplomacy

First, the influence of Western vested interest groups.

The existing international order is a reflection of the interests and will of the major powers in America and Europe. The emerging powers are bound to be repulsed and opposed by major powers in Europe and America if they intend to change the established rules in order to meet their own interests. In the negotiations on climate change, the emerging economies are faced with huge pressure from advanced Western nations represented by the United States. Developed countries demand that emerging economies such as India should implement carbon emission controls in accordance with Western standards, but India and other emerging economies insist that due to their different development level, developing countries should adopt differentiated standards compared with developed countries. Developing and developed nations failed to reach an agreement due to their huge divergence. In terms of reforms of the World Bank and IMF, emerging economies such as China and India called for the establishment of a new international financial order and the accelerated construction of a diversified international monetary system, which was also opposed by Western countries. As for agricultural negotiations, developing countries represented by India have huge differences with Western countries in terms of agricultural subsidies and tariffs. The conflict between India and the United States on agricultural subsidies in 2008 made it impossible for both sides to reach a final compromise.[15] In addition to direct confrontation, Western nations use corresponding mechanisms to counterbalance multilateral cooperation mechanisms established by developing nations. They induce or threaten some members of developing nations’ multilateral mechanisms in order to divide them and break up the mechanisms. Although Western countries have tried to include India, they are unwilling to see it as their equal.

Second, conflicts and divergences between India and some countries hinder the implementation and development of India’s multilateral diplomacy.

Multilateral diplomacy is usually a form of diplomacy in which a number of countries consult on issues of common interest due to their common interests. Whether or not there are sound relationships and convergent interests between the countries determines the impact of multilateral diplomacy, as well as the establishment, activities and future development of relevant multilateral diplomatic mechanisms. India has this concern during its implementation of multilateral diplomacy. In South Asia, India has sharp conflicts with Pakistan; its control and suppression of small countries in this region has resulted in misgivings among some members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). As a result, the development of SAARC has lagged far behind its neighbor ASEAN, not to mention the highly integrated EU. Mistrust between China and India due to issues such as border disputes has lasted over half a century; and in recent years, the rivalry, divergence and conflict between China and India over energy and trade etc will to a certain extent affect exchanges and cooperation between China and India within global multilateral mechanisms, and will hamper India’s ambition to play a greater role in Asia-Pacific or global multilateral mechanisms.

Third, conflict between diplomatic ideals and national strength.

After India achieved its independence, influenced by idealism, Nehru offered great support to help other countries break away from colonial rule and launched the Non-Aligned Movement. India’s behavior contained an element of idealism even though it did not mainly do so out of national self-interest. Nonviolence and idealism created the country of India. But in the following half century, India’s diplomacy was frequently frustrated by pragmatic politics today due to its foreign policy initiated out of idealistic concepts.[16] Harsh reality led the Indian government to recognize that the fantasy of the third-world leadership had few specific implications. India therefore reshuffled its foreign policy in recent years, and formed some new diplomatic concepts. Idealism and moralism are not completely driven, but marginalized, from India’s foreign policy.[17]

India’s performance on the multilateral diplomatic front is not always satisfactory due to the gap between its ideals and actual capabilities. For its own sake, India intends to play a greater role in the formulation and implementation of global rules, while the international community also expects India to take more responsibilities after joining multilateral organizations. But limited by its economic power and international status, India at this stage neither has the capacity, nor the intention to assume more responsibilities. The huge gap between the expectations of its global role, its strength and its willingness to contribute has greatly diminished the actual impact of India’s multilateral diplomacy.


Source: China International Studies November/December 2013 p138-152

[1]Huang Zhengduo is an associate research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, Sichuan University.

 Zaki Laïdi, “Trade deals show power politics is back”, March 31, 2013,

[2] Arthur G. Rubinoff, “The multilateral imperative in India’s foreign policy”, The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs, 1991, Volume 80, Issue 319, p. 313. 

[3] C. Raja Mohan, “India’s New Foreign Policy”, 

[4] Rohan Mukherjee and David M. Malone, “From High Ground to High Table: The Evolution of Indian Multilateralism”, Global Governance, 2011, Volume 17, Issue 3, p. 311. 

[5] “India’s Foreign Policy”, Embassy of India to China, 

[6]Sanjaya Baru, “Throwing BRICS at G-20?”, The Indian Express, March 29, 2012, 

[7] “India’s Foreign Policy”, Embassy of India to China, 

[8] C. Raja Mohan, “India’s New Foreign Policy”, 

[9] David M. Malone, Does the Elephant Dance?Contemporary Indian Foreign Policy, Oxford University Press, pp. 283-284. 

[10] Martin Wolf, “India’s elephant charges on through the economic crisis”, Financial Times, March 3, 2010. 

[11] “PM’s statement at Joint Press Conference at the BRICS Summit”, 

[12] Martin Wolf, “India’s elephant charges on through the economic crisis”, Financial Times, March 3, 2010. 

[13] Indrani Bagchi, “From moral to real: India on a self-building path”, The Times of India, January 25, 2010, 

[14] “Cooperation in Infrastructure Financing”, The BRICS Report (2012). 

[15] Zaki Laïdi, “Trade deals show power politics is back”, March 31, 2013, 

[16] Indrani Bagchi, “From moral to real: India on a self-building path”, The Times of India, January 25, 2010, 

[17] C. Raja Mohan, “India’s New Foreign Policy Strategy”,