India’s Approach to Multilateralism – Explained, pointwise

For 7PM Editorial Archives click HERE

The External Affairs Minister (EAM) of India visited the United Nations (UN) for the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in September 2022. At the session, the EAM reiterated the need for ‘reformed multilateralism‘ through which the United Nations Security Council should reform itself into a more inclusive organisation. In 2020, The Prime Minister had first called for ‘reformed multilateralism’ that “…reflects today’s realities, addresses contemporary challenges…”. The international geopolitics is in a state of flux. The role of global multilateral institutions amidst the US-China struggle for global supremacy, Russia-Ukraine conflict, COVID-19 pandemic among others has led to a crisis of legitimacy. India’s approach to multilateralism has been to call for reforms of these institutions as well as to engage with all stakeholders to secure India’s economic and geopolitical interests.

What is the meaning of Multilateralism?

According the UN, it is difficult to capture the nature of multilateralism through a single definition. Multilateralism means a form of cooperation between at least three States. It is often defined in opposition to bilateralism and unilateralism.

However, Multilateralism is not simply a question of the number of actors involved. It involves adherence to a common goal based on the respect of a shared system of norms and values. It is based on founding principles such as consultation, inclusion and solidarity. Multilateralism is determined by collectively developed rules that ensure sustainable and effective cooperation. It guarantees all States the same rights and obligations. Multilateralism is therefore both a method of cooperation and a form of organization of the international system.

What has been historic evolution of India’s approach to Multilateralism?
Cold War Era

India’s approach to multilateralism is characterised by the Policy of Non-alignment from the Cold-War era. At the time of Independence, the world was caught in Cold-war between the West and the Soviet-bloc. India saw merit in joining a number of multilateral groups like the G77, Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), Bandung Asian-African Conference of 1955 etc. India understood the strength of numbers. This method (as collective like NAM) would allow the voice of poor nations to be heard at the international forum. India’s approach to multilateralism was a way of magnifying its influence in international affairs until it could exert influence more materially. India didn’t joint ASEAN (when offered membership) because India considered that ASEAN was created under American control.

Post Cold-War

After the Cold War and post-globalization, regional groupings expanded because nations, including India, needed interdependencies for prosperity and security. With the opening of India’s economy, India realized the necessity of regional and multilateral organizations for its growth and stability. India actively pursued memberships and engagements with the forums that were considered crucial to secure India’s interests. India has joined diverse groupings like G20, Quad, SCO, BRICS, RIC (Russis-India-China), BIMSTEC etc. India actively pursued for memberships of security related groups like Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR, got membership in 2016) and the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). According to an estimate, India is a member of more than 2000 international organizations out of 6000 organizations in the world active today.

What are the perceptions about India’s Approach to Multilateralism?

Many nations, especially in the West, consider as a ‘Naysayer’ when it comes to negotiating international rules and working together on issues like climate change, nuclear proliferation, trade, and other similar issues. For instance, India has been blamed for breakdown of Doha Round of trade negotiations at the WTO in 2008. India is also blamed for lack of consensus on public stockholding of food grains and the subsidies at the WTO. India’s withdrawal from the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) in 2019 further crystallized its image of preferring bilateral arrangements over multilateral mechanisms when it comes to trade. More recently, India was blamed at the Glasgow Climate Summit (CoP 26) for diluting the global pledge to reduce use of coal by replacing ‘phase out’ of coal with ‘phase down’.

However, many foreign policy experts argue that India’s efforts to secure its national interests shouldn’t be seen as its opposition to rules and principles of multilateralism. Multilateralism prioritises cooperation and mutual respect over the interests of individual states. But all the nations act to protect their own interests while negotiating, and give concessions on cooperation as long as their interests are secured. India’s follows the same approach.

What are the present day challenges to global order and Multilateralism?

Recent geopolitical developments have put the global order in a phase of uncertainty.

First, the COVID-19 epidemic revealed the institutional limitation of the bodies like United Nations/WHO/WTO. Countries shut down their borders and the supply networks collapsed. There was a severe shortage of vaccines. India’s efforts for TRIPS waiver for vaccines were shot down by the US and the EU.

Second, the UN has proved to be ineffective in reigning-in the Russia-Ukraine war. Many UN resolutions have been blocked by Russia’s veto. Nor has the UN been able to limit Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

Third, The growth of China and its belligerence and aggressiveness in the South China Sea, the Indo-Pacific, and increasingly across the world have highlighted the limitations of United Nations-style multilateralism. China has been using its strength to create its own global structure, and is focused on reducing the influence of the West in a new global order.

What has been India’s approach to Multilateralism?

India’s multilateral actions have been based on pragmatism since the 1980s. It has worked to advance and protect its core interests through multilateral engagement, to resist or ignore international rules when necessary, and to be open and willing to shape and ratify such rules where national and global interests align.

India has taken principled stands on various issues like nuclear proliferation and weapons control, international trade, climate change, and the United Nations Security Council.

Read More: United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Reforms – Explained, pointwise

India’s engagement with multilateral institutions and its interventions have evolved with changing interests e.g., during the initial years after independence, India’s focus was more on decolonization and the desire for autonomy in foreign policy and development. But over the years, these ideas have given way to positions that are influenced by rational considerations. Economic interests came into play and become more salient as India’s engagement with the international economy grew. India actively pushed GATT/World Trade Organization to liberalize tariffs in industries like services and agriculture where Indian firms have a competitive advantage. At the World Health Organization, India endorsed a strong set of rules to curb rising tobacco use worldwide, having seen the raging effects of tobacco consumption at home.

India’s trade approach marries a healthy mix of pursuing regional and multilateral arrangements. India has actively participated in both the WTO and the regional trade agreements. For example, after the failure of the Doha Round in 2008, India turned to regional trade deals to help its economy grow. India’s free trade agreements with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the signing of the South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) indicate a firm commitment to regional frameworks. Hence, a significant characteristic of India’s trade policy is following a multi-track approach that favours both regionalism and multilateralism.

In its efforts to secure its interests, India has continued to engage with countries in the opposing blocs, for instance, India is member of both Quad (with Australia, Japan and the US) and the SCO (with Russia and China). India uses SCO to secure its strategic interests in Central Asia.

Read More: Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) – Explained, pointwise

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) is based on common political principles as democracies and a shared interest of a belligerent China. Moreover, India has used bilateral and trilateral frameworks, especially joint naval exercises, with countries like the US, Australia, Singapore, and France to send strategic messages. With these drills, India has shown readiness to respond to China’s coercive actions in the maritime domain. India will likely rely on bilateral defence relationships with the West (US, France etc.) to pursue its key security objectives in the maritime governance across the Indian ocean.


India’s present day diplomacy is driven by actively pursuing India’s economic and security interests.  India’s multilateral approach is neither obstructionist nor motivated by a desire to hamper global initiatives. With continued economic progress, India’s interests and stakes in the international system will expand. Realizing this India is calling for a rules based global order with reforms of the multilateral institutions.

Syllabus: GS II, India and its neighbourhood relations.

Source: The Hindu, Mint, United Nations Office, ORF

Print Friendly and PDF