The current ruckus over AUKUS — the trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, which was announced on September 15, 2021 — has revealed the hazards of group diplomacy, which Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had anticipated when President Ziaur Rahman of Bangladesh proposed a regional organisation for South Asia.
The SAARC years
Apart from its reservations about the reference to security in the draft charter for SAARC, or the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, India was in a dilemma — that not joining the forum would look as though India was against regional cooperation. And if it joined, it faced the possibility of its neighbours ganging up and using the SAARC institutions to pressure India on various regional issues. One other concern was that the proposer of such a group would be suspected of aspiring to the leadership of a region.
On balance, India joined the Association with a number of conditionalities such as the exclusion of bilateral issues, decision-making by voting, and holding of meetings without all members being present. But despite the imperative for cooperation in vital fields, SAARC became an arena for India bashing, particularly by Pakistan. It was bilateral diplomacy in the guise of multilateralism and it became moribund as India did not attend the last summit. SAARC became a liability as it was clear that the region was not mature enough to have a regional instrumentality.
Today, the world has a whole spectrum of groups — from the European Union at one end to the African Union at the other — with varying shades of cooperation. Groups with acronyms such as North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and numerical groups from a notional G-2 to a real G-77 which has more than a 100 members, exist.
Many of them do not have regional, ideological or thematic homogeneity to lend them a reason for forming a group. The time, the money and the energy spent on convening not only summits but also a whole paraphernalia of ministerial, official and expert level meetings do not seem justified. Bureaucracies, with United Nations salaries and perks, grow around these bodies, developing vested interests to perpetuate them. Such groups which do not have “sunset” clauses continue even after they diminish in importance
Searching for an agenda
Finding the agenda for these organisations and groups is another difficult exercise. The growing agenda of the United Nations includes everything from peace on earth to celestial bodies and even UFOs. When India decided to remain in the Commonwealth even as an independent country, the nature of the affinity to the British Crown changed and its agenda expanded beyond the concerns of the former British colonies. The only way it could survive, after Zimbabwe became independent and apartheid disappeared in South Africa, was by duplicating the agenda of the United Nations and repeating pronouncements of member-states made in other organisations. The role of the Commonwealth was reviewed, but the members reached the conclusion that it had continuing relevance.
The rationale of some of the other new groups was unclear even when they were formed. A Goldman Sachs economist found similarities among fast growing economies such as China, Russia, India and Brazil and recommended massive western investments in these countries. The countries concerned formed an intergovernmental group called BRIC and later BRICS, with South Africa added as a representative of the African continent. At that time, it was feared that, with the presence of China and Russia in it, it would be construed as an anti-American group. As expected. China quickly assumed the leadership of BRICS and tried to seek changes in the international economic system by establishing a bank, with the possibility of credit for its members. The result of this development was undermining the relevance of another, less ambitious, group of India, Brazil and South Africa (IBSA), which had several common interests. As candidates for permanent membership of the Security Council, they had specific ideas on UN reform and on South-South cooperation.
The recent BRICS summit had Afghanistan on its agenda and the diverse group was able to reach a conclusion only with different caveats. Russia and China were more sympathetic to the Taliban than the others. At the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit, delegations found some common elements of concern with dramatically different approaches. The SCO started off as a friendly group of China and some of the former Republics of the Soviet Union, but with the addition of India, Pakistan and Iran, it became a diverse group and it could not reach agreement. Pakistan naturally sounded triumphant, but even Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan could not gloat over the unshackling of the Taliban in the face of a looming humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan. Whether the Chinese presence in these summits and the meetings between Wang Yi and S. Jaishankar (the Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister and India’s External Affairs Minister, respectively) made any difference to the stand-off in Ladakh is yet to be seen. But we know that frequent meetings with the leaders of China do not necessarily mean a meeting of minds as Beijing’s trajectory of thoughts and actions are highly unpredictable. Those who saw China’s President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in conversation in Mamallapuram (near Chennai), at the second informal summit between India and China, in October 2019, would never have thought that they would ever be in an armed conflict.
India and other groupings
India has also had experience of taking initiatives to encourage groups without the participation of Pakistan, knowing well that Pakistan’s presence is a sure recipe for trouble. One of them is the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), an international organisation of seven South Asian and Southeast Asian nations which are dependent on the Bay of Bengal: Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand. The group remained dormant for many years till it was revived a few years ago as an alternative to SAARC. Though it has an ambitious agenda for sectoral cooperation, it has not gained much momentum.
Another group which India has championed is the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). The organisation was first established as the Indian Ocean Rim Initiative in Mauritius in March 1995 and formally launched on March 6-7 1997 (then known as the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Co-operation). It also drags on without any significant progress.
On the other hand, the two active groups, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), have eluded us even though we have major stakes in them. We campaigned actively for membership of these two bodies, but gave up when we made no headway. In the process of working with the U.S. on a bouquet of groups such as Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), NSG, the Wassenaar Arrangement and the Australia Group, we ended up with membership of Wassenaar and the Australia Group, in which we were not interested.
The Quad and AUKUS
The Quad had a chequered history of India flirting with it for years till the Chinese threat became real in 2020, but New Delhi’s reluctance to call a spade a spade has driven the U.S. to new alliances such as a second Quad and then AUKUS as the U.S. wanted to fortify itself with allies against China. But the reaction of France to AUKUS has raised the issue of loyalty among allies even though AUKUS has made it clear that it was meant only to enable the U.S. to transfer nuclear propelled submarine technology to Australia.
The proliferation of alliances and groups will be a matter of close scrutiny by many countries in the light of the new trend initiated by the U.S. Collective bargaining is the strength of group diplomacy but it cannot be effective without commitment to a common cause. It stands to reason that India should also reconsider the plethora of groups we are in and rationalise them after a reality check.
T.P. Sreenivasan is a former Ambassador of India to several multilateral bodies, and is presently Director-General of the Kerala International Centre, Thiruvananthapuram