Rise Of Minilateralism In India


Minilateralism refers to diplomatic efforts made by three or more countries aside from formal and traditional formats (such as the United Nations) which deals with some specific issues that affect more than one nation but not all. For a group to be called minilateral , the number of countries involved must be between three to nine. The membership in these varies on factors such as shared values, situational interests, or relevant capabilities. These act as a group of various countries who have a shared objective and similar interests or challenges. Some examples of minilaterals are QUAD, AUKUS, etc. Minilateralism is said to be something lying between bilateralism and multilateralism. It is more exclusive, flexible or even functional. They are voluntary rather than legally binding. Minilateralism provides room for collaborations on diverse issues varying from security to economic cooperation.   The rise in minilaterals can be due to a stagnation in reforms and perceived failure of multilateral organizations to cooperate globally on various issues. In recent years, a rise in minilateralism has been observed especially in indo-pacific. India, which traditionally has not been a part of these small groups, has been showing a larger  interest in the recent years with the QUAD and now the most recent trilateral with France and Australia. The geo-politics in indo-pacific region with the hegemony of China and the US being insecure of its position and an increasing fear among littoral countries led to everyone finding their own alliances and a growth of minilaterals in this area. 

Increasing Ineffectiveness Of Maxilaterals

It was after the second world war that several multilateral institutions were formed by the allies, in order to spread the western liberal order. These institutions were all but forced on developing countries without context sensitivity.¬† Earlier, a maxilateral approach¬† of international diplomacy like the United Nations was popular¬† where there was an inclusivity of as many countries as possible. Except the paris agreement in 2015 there have been no major so called multilateral treaties in the last decade and more. The Paris agreement too has about hundred members which is about half of the members in the UN. It is observed that in the last decade the power of the United Nations to make decisions and provide worthwhile solutions to global issues has reduced especially in the security council. This is mostly because of frequent disagreements between permanent five members. Some examples are the problem of settling conflict in Syria or ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar. Other than the United Nations, other multilateral organizations have also been facing their share of criticisms like the WTO (World trade organization) with it not being able to control Chinese trade policies. With its rejection by even US president Donald Trump it is no longer considered sustainable and reliable. Also¬† the issues and complications¬† that arise in decision making in the larger organizations can be avoided . There are many people who view the UN as nothing more than a ‚Äústockpile of vested interests of big powers‚ÄĚ. States today are only interested in signing vague agreements which are not legally binding. Thus this multilateral framework which was created and made popular in the post- world war 2 era is no longer effective. With the world becoming multipolar a shift from multilateral to minilateral was bound to happen. This is an era of states with various interests,this decline of maxilateral corporations will lead to new coalitions among the willing. Especially with the rise of middle powers, as they were obviously disgruntled that they were not a major player in the changing global dynamics. Thus there is a rise in minilateral arrangements to serve national interests and get the results which could not be achieved. So¬† it can be said that it¬† is the era of ‚Äúminilateral‚ÄĚ coalitions where every state which is a member of this coalition is in it by choice to solve a particular problem which it cannot solve by itself and needs cooperation and new ideas.

Rise Of Minilaterals In Indo-Pacific Region

China’s hegemony in the indo-pacific region has galvanized support for minilateral groups in the indo-pacific region. With China and its aggressive diplomacy it has forced states to look for different ways to respond. Historically speaking India has not exactly been at the forefront of playing a role in the power dynamics of this region but disputes with China have forced India and many other countries in indo-pacific to adopt a power-centric approach. Capacity constraints are another reason for increase in minilaterals as most of the neighbors are lacking in either military or economic capacity or both in comparison to China. It is believed that coming years would see further rise in such coalitions. New strategy alignments are created such as QUAD. states have come to the conclusion that it is better to be a part of such coalitions and work with others who have similar interests rather than relying on a single organization which provides little to no solution. 

Importance Of Minilaterals In India’s Foreign Trade Policy

India has become a leading advocate for minilateralism because it allows India to maintain its policy of strategic autonomy, it doesn’t have to ally itself with any major power and still it is able to  keep a close partnership with countries like the US and others in various fields. India has a deep history of non-alignment and distrust of the west, it is better for India to not get tied down to a traditional alliance system. It has always been a country which has prioritized strategic autonomy. Yet minilateralism allows it to keep a close partnership with other countries.  for example  building a cancer hospital in Kenya along with its two Trilateral partners i.e. US and Japan and commencing a tele-education center in Ethiopia.They were done in contrast to the  Chinese work projects  in this area without explicitly showing any competition. India’s minilateralism is showcasing an expanding breath of partnerships. With all the issues with China, India obviously wants to be in flexible partnerships with similar or like-minded partners in the indo-pacific. The examples are I2U2, Quad, India-France-UAE trilateral. Minilaterals promote economic cooperation in a way multilaterals do not, as most have competing interests. Minilaterals such as I2U2 developed in an organic manner, firstly with UEA, India and Israel as they are strong middle powers with a combined GDP of $4 Trillion dollars but when the US entered it did help in providing a kind of gravitas to the group.

The Quad

The QUAD consists of Japan, US, India and Australia, which have grouped together to counter China‚Äôs¬† hegemony in the indo-pacific and raise the cost of Chinese aggression. The Chinese government in response called this an ‚ÄúAsian NATO‚ÄĚ to which Indian foreign minister S.Jaishankar replied that India never had ‚ÄúNATO mentality‚ÄĚ.¬† The motive of the Quad as described is a shared vision towards a free and open indo-pacific and a more rule based maritime order in East and South China Seas. Though there have been increased tensions between the Quad and China, some¬† commentators have even called this a new cold war. On May 24 2022, Indian prime minister Modi in his opening statements said that Quad was a force of good for the indo-pacific region and has a crucial role in the world stage.

The France-India-UAE Trilateral

In February 2022, France, UAE ( United Arab Emirates) and India came together to announce  a new trilateral partnership which focused  on a myriad  of areas such as defense, technology and energy. According to the statement given by indian ministry of external affairs, the three countries have come to an agreement that “the initiative will serve as a forum to promote design and execution of cooperation projects in fields of energy such as solar and nuclear energy and also in the fight against climate change and protection of biodiversity especially in the indian-ocean region. There is also the idea of working with the Indian ocean rim association (IORA) for the same. Defense is another field where the three countries are looking to focus, both India and UAE have purchased the french rafale fighters furthering their defense agenda. France’s first military base in the gulf is situated in Abu Dhabi which is strategically between the gulf of Oman and persian gulf. India’s relationship with these two have developed through bilateral and minilateral initiatives. India and UAE are also part of the middle east quad and I2U2 groupings. Seeing this strong commitment of the three countries this partnership can become an action-oriented minilateral in the broader indo-pacific.  India has warm relations with both France and UAE, they have been close and strategic partners of india. While France-India relationship has been decades old, based on the vision they share of a multipolar world with effective multilateralism. Whereas the relationship with UAE has been gaining momentum in the last few years as India has been trying to reach the Arab world also the fact that UAE is home to a large Indian diaspora. Outside the trilateral India has other bilateral and  minilateral initiatives with both the countries such as I2U2 with UAE.  This partnership will help in shaping the indo-pacific strategic dynamics which consists of maritime security, infrastructure.

Risks Posed By Minilateralism To ASEAN

ASEAN is at a weak point right now due to certain ongoing issues that have been happening  in the Indo-Pacific such as the South China sea dispute and the ongoing Myanmar crisis. so, naturally   Doubts are casted on ASEAN regionalism and its leadership role in the area,  as it is being considered as slow and even  ineffective to a certain extent. The point is that It is not able to deliver the results where it is required. The increase in minilateralism in the indo-pacific region in recent times  shows the inability of ASEAN to be able to  strengthen its centrality and cohesiveness with all the  engaging external powers. Over the years ,Various minilateral organizations have even questioned the effectiveness of ASEAN. Obviously ,This increase in minilateralism poses a threat to the notion of regionalism and ASEAN`S core values of unity and centrality. It is shaking the very foundation ASEAN is built on. These rising minilaterals  impact other states as they are finding it difficult to remain neutral as many do not want to choose a side. 

Challenges And Criticisms Of India’s Minilateral Strategy

As discussed above India has been a part of multiple minilateral arrangements such as QUAD, BRICS and even the SCO. This goes to show that India has been trying to have good relations with almost all the major powers in the world.  India has been an odd one out in many of these arrangements such as in the QUAD, with the Russia-Ukraine invasion and humanitarian crisis in Europe, all the QUAD countries have imposed severe sanctions on Russia except for India. Furthermore, India is also buying more oil from Russia and it has not called out Russia or Putin for the crisis.  Similarly in most of these minilateral arrangements, the other key members can or already have  closer ties with each other than with India. This may create a problem of a friend to all is a friend to none and India might not have anyone to depend on when in need. Moreover , minilateralism in general is quite risky as it can undermine the importance and legitimacy of certain international organizations and turn the world’s coalescence into rival coalitions. 

India`s Minilateralism And The Way Ahead

Over the years, India has grown from being a balancing power to a stabilizing force in the current geopolitical scenario. It is following its belief of strategic autonomy. It is doing so, by being a part of various minilaterals with several major  powers in the world such as the United States through QUAD, I2U2 etc China through BRICS,  and various European countries like France recently with the trilateral. With the rise of collective influence of  middle powers, At present the better option would be for minilaterals to support the work in multilateral instead of subverting their work. They should help to fill the gaps in the multilateral framework and allow countries to sort their international issues.  There is a need to actively push for reforms on the multilateral stage in order to protect the universal rules based framework .   Thus reaching closer to the ultimate goal of international cooperation and a good global governance. Successful results of the minilateral settings can be advanced further to multilaterals and get support from the broader community. 
Author: Neelanjana Negi