Written by Karthik Nachiappan.

India’s diplomatic engagement at the recently concluded U.N. General Assembly is vividly captured by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s address in which she pilloried Pakistan for sanctioning cross border terrorism.

The speech was universally lauded by BJP leaders who praised Swaraj for her unsparing takedown of Pakistan punctuated by stark comparisons of India and Pakistan’s global contributions – human capital and technology for India and terror and instability for Pakistan. Her remarks were lapped up by the Indian media and social media commentators. Some pundits though wondered whether India should focus so intensely on Pakistan at the U.N. at the expense of other, more germane, challenges and opportunities. The larger truth, however, was that the speech was the focal point of a wide, broad-based multilateral agenda at the General Assembly largely centred around India’s development trajectory. India’s economic rise is now being serviced by a multilateral approach that is less sententious, obstructionist and defensive and more practical, clear-eyed and rational.

India’s policy focus and advocacy was circumscribed. Besides the heated rhetoric toward Pakistan, India did not make any statements on burning global security issues including North Korea, Myanmar and the recently concluded standoff with China in the Northeast. Such issues were likely reserved for bilateral meetings with key partners including the United States and Japan.

Punchy broadside to Pakistan aside, Swaraj’s speech underscored the range of perilous challenges thrust upon the U.N. and the international community – climate change, nuclear proliferation, migration, cyber-warfare and exigent threats like ISIS. Swaraj highlighted issues that India fears developed countries are disengaging from – namely climate change and counter-terrorism. In lieu, Swaraj underscored the ways in which India has been contributing to these issues, namely the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (includes the SDG Campaign) which she feared would lose steam if left unattended. Climate change was particularly emphasised amid the flurry of storms battering the Americas. These crises, she hoped, would add new urgency for developed countries to renew financial support to developing countries who are confronting the same problem with much less capacity. India, Swaraj added, was already aiding this cause through the India-UN Development Partnership Fund which supports Small Island Developing States to boost their domestic resilience to natural disasters. Her speech also urged the U.N. to make progress on U.N. Security Council reform and the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism (CCIT) that has languished for nearly two decades.

The Indian delegation’s diplomacy and advocacy activity during the week reveals much of India’s increasingly strategic multilateral approach. Economic issues were front and centre. Migration was a key priority. With the rhetoric around immigration turning incendiary in the developed world, Indian officials sought to make a clear distinction between refugees and economic migrants to ensure the latter, critical for the Indian economy through remittances, does not get unwittingly conflated with the former. Indian officials contributed to prevailing U.N. discussions on the movement of migrants and refugees; here, New Delhi highlighted the business case for open migration emphasising the human mobility of professionals, workers and students that constitute both an integral part of the global economy and India’s economic trajectory.

Restrictions here harm India’s interests. India is expected to actively participate in the ongoing U.N. led consultation process leading to intergovernmental negotiations to devise a ‘Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration’ in September 2018. India’s positions here are a continuation of its sustained advocacy for liberal migration policies for Indian citizens at the GATT and WTO. India also became the first country to voluntarily contribute to the UN Tax Trust Fund, created to provide developing countries technical assistance on international taxation issues with an eye to deter tax evasion. Again, India’s insistence on mitigating tax evasion stem from her leadership on the issue at recent G-20 summits.

India also showered considerable attention on climate change and sustainable development. The delegation plugged India’s ratification of the 2016 Paris Agreement, stated national climate actions and plans, particularly on the renewable energy side, and ongoing stewardship of the International Solar Alliance. On the SDGs, India has been a member of the UN’s Inter Agency Expert Group on SDG indicators convened to finalise the global indicator framework to monitor SDG implementation. India’s role in the global framework process was backed by NITI Aayog’s efforts to create a national indicator framework to track domestic progress on the SDGs.

Thus far, the Modi government has politically supported the multilateral Agenda 2030 campaign that in the words of the new Indian Vice President Venkaiah Naidu ‘mirrors India’s own vision of development.’ Self interest ostensibly played a role in reinforcing the global importance of climate change. India continues to channel the plight of developing countries who confront the problem with marked technical and financial deficits. Financing remains a major constraint for India herself. A recent domestic review of the progress made on SDGs indicated that finances are a particular problem imperilling further progress on sustainable development. In New York, Swaraj emphasised the criticality of climate change in her address, goading developed countries to provide financing through the UNFCCC’s Green Climate Fund.

Security-wise, however, India’s policy focus and advocacy was circumscribed. Besides the heated rhetoric toward Pakistan, India did not make any statements on burning global security issues including North Korea, Myanmar and the recently concluded standoff with China in the Northeast. Such issues were likely reserved for bilateral meetings with key partners including the United States and Japan. Sovereignty concerns preclude consideration or discussion of these issues at the multilateral level.

It is noteworthy that on human rights, India pushed the UN to ‘strengthen the capabilities of national governments’ in their efforts to protect and promote human rights. This statement captures India’s stance on the Rohinghya crisis. Criticism from international civil society groups has not persuaded New Delhi to modify their obstinate approach to the humanitarian crisis unfolding on their far eastern border.

India’s diplomacy, the commitments announced and the statements made point to a multilateral strategy that is clear-eyed, pragmatic and sober. It emphasised economic and development related policy issues and refrained from public judgments on pressing security issues that could tangle them into imprudent or unnecessary commitments. Economic matters, particularly concerning migration and climate change, were stressed given their effects on the Indian economy. Indian officials pushed western countries to provide financial assistance for climate change and eschew protectionist policies in terms of trade and immigration. India’s stances on security and human rights issues followed a pattern of reticence. No statements were made on contingent security issues like North Korea, Myanmar and the Doklam crisis while proclamations on human rights reflected a preference for sovereignty over intervention.

Karthik Nachiappan has a D.Phil from the India Institute, King’s College London, his research focuses on India’s multilateral behaviour. He tweets @karthiknach. Image credit: Indian Ministry of External Affairs/Flickr.

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