India’s Golden Multipolar Moment Is Here
India has an unprecedented opportunity to project power through its leadership of the G20, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and the UN Security Council.
India’s long-waited opportunity to lead and set the agenda for global cooperation under a multipolar world order has arrived. After assuming the presidency of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) in December, New Delhi will also chair both the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the G20 in 2023. As a strong advocate of multilateralism, the presidency of these multipolar global bodies presents a historic opportunity for New Delhi to push for a “rules-based” multilateral order and elevate its global leadership role. It also gives the Modi administration a golden chance to shape the world agenda and put India in the global spotlight. However, India will face challenges as it assumes these global responsibilities at a challenging time.
UNSC: Fighting Terrorism and Reforming Multilateralism
India will serve as the president of the UNSC for the month of December, marking its second time as president in its two-year tenure as an elected non-permanent member of the council. Under India’s December presidency, countering terrorism and reformed multilateralism will be among the key priorities addressed during two major ministerial-level events held on December 14 and 15, respectively. The two signature events will be chaired by Indian external minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, who continues to push hard for UNSC reforms and advocate for India’s permanent membership in the UNSC.
New Delhi’s leadership in fighting against terrorism was demonstrated by the Delhi Declaration, which has received wide praise and recognition following its adoption by the members of the UNSC’s Counter-Terrorism Committee (CTC) in October 2022. Under the declaration, member states are to ensure “zero tolerance” towards terrorism by effectively implementing UNSC resolutions and fulling their obligations to relevant international counter-terrorism conventions. While the declaration signaled a symbolic victory for India, implementing it will be a challenging task due to its non-binding nature.
Speaking about reformed multilateralism, India’s permanent representative to the UN, Ruchira Kamboj, said the council lacks a truly geographic representation, as it is still far from reflective of the true diversity of the UN as a whole. There is a gaping divide emerging among the UNSC members on a wide range of issues, such as Ukraine and North Korea. With the growing polarization of the fractured UNSC, it will be challenging for the council president to reach a consensus on these contentious issues. However, India can still play a constructive role by setting agendas and highlighting its priority areas.
The council president can exercise a vast range of procedural powers, including holding council meetings, approving provisional agendas, issuing presidential statements, and signing records of meetings. As a member of the G4 grouping—comprised of Brazil, Germany, India, and Japan—which seeks to expand the permanent membership of the UNSC, the presidency offers India a unique opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to multilateralism and display its leadership skills.
G20: Setting the Agenda and Championing the Global South
As India began to succeed Indonesia as president of the G20 on December 1, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi said the country will work to promote a “universal sense of oneness,” inspired by the theme of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (One World, One Family, One Future).
New Delhi has identified several priorities for its G20 presidency: inclusive, equitable, and sustainable growth; Lifestyle for the Environment (LiFE); women's empowerment; digital public infrastructure and tech-enabled development; climate funding; global food security; and energy security, among others. However, tackling these global challenges demands collective action and multilateral cooperation. There are divisions within the G20 due not only to geopolitical tensions between Russia and the West over the Russo-Ukrainian War but also the non-Western-aligned stances that China and India have taken on the war, largely due to their deep trade ties. This complex geopolitical and economic situation will make it difficult for the Modi administration to build consensus on issues such as climate change and multilateral reforms.
Jaishankar said New Delhi will position itself as the leading “voice of the Global South” and will seek to "depoliticize" the global supply of food, fertilizers, and medical products. While multilateralism is in a state of crisis, India can use its G20 presidency to position itself as the leader of the Global South, focus on issues of concern and interest to the Global South, and advocate for broader representation of developing countries. After India, Brazil will take over the G20 presidency, followed by South Africa in 2025.
SCO: Broadening Ties with Central Asia and Diversifying Partnerships
Coincidentally, New Delhi recently also took over as chair of the SCO until September 2023 and will host the SCO summit next year, along with the G20 summit. Launched in Shanghai in 2001, the SCO has six founding members: China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. The body has grown to become one of the largest trans-regional international organizations, representing more than 30 percent of the world’s GDP since India and Pakistan joined as full members in 2017.
Being the first South Asian country to host the SCO summit, the SCO presidency provides an opportunity for India to increase its engagement and interaction with Central Asian countries. For example, Iran’s entry into the SCO during India’s 2023 chairmanship can help strengthen New Delhi’s Eurasian outreach and bolster trade connectivity between Central and South Asia through the Chabahar Port and the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC). New Delhi can also use SCO’s Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) to strengthen cooperation and coordination with the SCO countries in combating extremism and regional security challenges.
As India is the only SCO nation that is also part of the U.S.-led Quad security dialogue and Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), the rotating SCO presidency enables New Delhi to diversify its trade partners and routes. Coinciding with the G20 summit, India can use the SCO forum to advocate for its model of development and prosperity and project itself as a muscular power. However, India’s current geopolitical tensions with Pakistan and China further complicate India’s role and position in the SCO. For example, New Delhi has repeatedly opposed the extension of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which it deems to be in violation of its territorial sovereignty. There also seems to be no end to India’s territorial disputes with Pakistan and China. With these fundamental differences and complex relationships, it remains to be seen whether New Delhi can advance its connectivity projects in the SCO.
While India’s presidency of the G20, SCO, and UNSC presents an unprecedented opportunity for New Delhi to advance its vision of multilateralism and leadership in the emerging multipolar world, it also comes with several challenges, including sharpened geopolitical tensions, terrorism, and the crisis of multilateralism. However, it is a moment for New Delhi to display its leadership in shaping the global response to the existing challenges as it transforms itself from a “rule-taker” to a “rule-maker.”
Danny Teh Zi Yee is a Li Ka Shing scholar in international affairs at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. He was previously the Director of External Affairs for the ASEAN Youth Advocates Network (AYAN) Malaysia. His articles and commentaries have appeared in Cambodianess, Modern Diplomacy, Malaysiakini, New Straits Times, The National Interest, and The Diplomat, among others. Get in touch with him via Twitter, LinkedIn or email.