India’s multi-alignment strategy: Facing COVID-19 during the BRICS presidency

Frank O’Donnell and Mihaela Papa

Vladimir Putin, Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping pose for a group photo prior to their trilateral meeting at the G20 Osaka Summit 2019.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping pose for a group photo prior to their trilateral meeting at the G20 Osaka Summit 2019 on June 28, 2019 in Osaka, Japan. Photo by photo by Mikhail Svetlov via Getty Images.

As India grapples with an acute COVID-19 crisis during its BRICS (Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa) presidency, its foreign policy strategy faces a daunting test. Our recent article in International Affairs analysed India’s attempts to maintain its relationships with numerous different partners. India’s main foreign policy strategy has been ‘multi-alignment’: maintaining relations with diverse countries while being in various international bodies and utilizing these different streams to push Indian policy priorities without committing to binding agreements. In the complicated context of 2021, it is vital to ask whether India can still effectively use this strategy.

India has previously effectively used multi-alignment to advance its counter-terrorism agenda across three pivotal Eurasian alignments: BRICS, the Russia-India-China (RIC) trilateral, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). It consistently sought to elevate counterterrorism cooperation within each alignment and shift policy attention accordingly. For example, in 2018, after achieving joint condemnation within the BRICS forum of anti-India terrorist groups based in Pakistan, India faced pushback led by China (Pakistan’s close political and security partner). As a result, India switched its focus by reactivating RIC at the heads-of-state level and intensifying its counter-terrorism diplomacy at the SCO. This fluid approach enabled India to make gradual progress on its counter-terrorism agenda, while reducing the impact of potential failure in any one alignment.

The context for India’s BRICS presidency

In recent years, however, India’s multi-alignment strategy has been challenged by its deteriorating relationship with China. To advance its policy agenda in multilateral forums which include China, India still needs to secure Chinese support or at least acquiescence. While India attempts to stabilize its domestic COVID-19 crisis and ensure its BRICS presidency sees concrete progress on its foreign policy agenda, China is also seeking to assert leadership on multilateral responses to COVID-19 through the SCO alignment.

In addressing these challenges, India has an existing BRICS pandemic policy agenda to build on. BRICS first added cooperation on the prevention of communicable and non-communicable diseases to its agenda in 2011. In 2018, the South African presidency proposed a BRICS Vaccine Research and Development Centre, which was endorsed by all states at the annual summit. However, in May 2021, China took the lead in operationalizing this proposal, opening the first national ‘branch’ of this centre within its existing Sinovac vaccine development complex. That said, there has been no mention of a BRICS cost-sharing agreement in establishing these state branches, which could limit their scale and impact. China also proposed a BRICS Symposium of Vaccine Cooperation, which was accepted in the June 1 BRICS Foreign Ministers’ statement. India and South Africa jointly proposed that BRICS commit to demanding a WTO waiver on vaccine IP; however, they were unable to persuade Brazil, as the only BRICS holdout state, to adopt this position. Instead, the statement limited BRICS to merely ‘supporting ongoing consideration’ of this issue, rather than affirmative commitment to securing a waiver.

Opportunities for Indian leadership

India can make a BRICS global vaccine and pandemic resilience initiative a lasting contribution of its presidency. Organizing candid BRICS dialogues at senior levels on national vaccination and medical supply needs can be a first step. This will build consensus on mutual assistance to BRICS citizens, on a more comprehensive scale than the general BRICS New Development Bank loans that have been issued to member states to support their national responses to COVID-19. India can also press member states to commit to a near-term deadline for opening a BRICS vaccine facility in each state with a cost-sharing agreement for this system. Simultaneously, India can push for a new BRICS-level institutional commitment of vaccines to the WHO COVAX programme, which facilitates vaccine provision to low and middle-income countries.

Crucially, India can leverage its multi-alignment management experience in executing these policies. While advancing these priorities in the BRICS forum, it can also simultaneously raise them as agenda items in the RIC and SCO alignments. This will allow India to switch forums if it faces diplomatic setbacks on this program in one alignment. Furthermore, India can seek to develop the Quad Vaccine Partnership agenda so it more closely resembles proposals made here for the BRICS alignment. India’s multi-alignment management approach makes it uniquely capable of building and leveraging issue-based coalitions to address global challenges. The convergence of its pandemic crisis with the BRICS presidency presents an opportunity in this regard that should not be missed.

Frank O’Donnell is a Postdoctoral Scholar within the Rising Power Alliances project in the Center for International Environment and Resource Policy at the Fletcher School at Tufts University.

Mihaela Papa is Co-Principal Investigator, Rising Power Alliances project, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor in Sustainable Development and Global Governance at the Fletcher School at Tufts University.

Their article, ‘India’s multi-alignment management and the Russia-India-China triangle’, was published in the May 2021 issue of International Affairs.

Read the article here.

This blogpost is related to the research supported by the U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense Minerva Initiative through the U.S. Department of Navy award [N000141812744] issued by the U.S. Office of Naval Research. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Office of Naval Research.

All views expressed are individual not institutional.

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