Foreign Policy Watch: India-China

The new multilateralism


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : WHO's role.

Mains level : Paper 2- How BRICS with India and China as its members poses challenges in its success?


As the major global institutions — from the WHO to the WTO — are experiencing unprecedented turmoil India needs to be pragmatic and fleet-footed.

Reorientation of India’s multilateral strategy

  • 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.

China’s growing influence and implications for India

  • China’s role on Kashmir question: China repeatedly pressed the UN to discuss the Kashmir question after Delhi changed the constitutional status of the region last August.
  • China avoiding discussion on Covid crisis: 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.
  • With its veto power, Beijing can simply prevent the UNSC from doing anything against China.

Why the credibility of the UN and WHO bureaucracy is under cloud?

  • Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, jumped quickly into the Indo-Pak arguments over Kashmir, and raised concerns over India’s Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Breakdown of the multilateral system: 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.
  • Actions of BRICS members with respect to India: 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.
  • Preventing discussion on COVID crisis: 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.

Context which gave rise to 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”.
  • 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.
  • Balancing the US pressure: 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 after BRICS-Changes in circumstances

  • 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.
  • China’s role on Kashmir issue: It is Beijing that wants the UNSC to take up the Kashmir question, and it is Paris and Washington that are preventing it.
  • NSG membership blocked by China: 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.
  • Shielding of Pakistan by China: 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.

India’s engagement with Europe

  • India has also discovered the new possibilities for engaging Europe in the multilateral arena.
  • Europe as an important partner: 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.

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