Today it seems almost comical to remember that when the first India-China-Russia trilateral summit was announced nearly a decade ago, commentators spoke of the dawn of a new non-Western international order. The trilateral just completed its ninth foreign ministers’ meeting in Bangalore and its conclusions were as meaningless as the previous rounds. India is a member of many such international formulations whose utility is apparent to no one.
Given that India’s foreign and strategic institutions are stretched to the limit, it might make sense to question the purpose of remaining in such organisations, let alone joining new ones. Does anyone know what the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation accomplishes anymore? Does anyone know why the Brazil-Russia-India-China summits have been launched? The list goes on.
The standard answer is that India needs to have a foothold in such groupings on the off chance that this body may become a major source of influence. This is natural. Countries seek to be members of global rules-making bodies largely for fear they will have to conform to norms based on the interests of other countries. The short definition of a superpower: a country that sets rules for other countries. India has suffered in the past from not being present at the creation. It suffered decades of sanctions by not being an original member of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. It was sleeping when the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation organisation was created. Therefore, India should take no chances and sign up for everything that comes its way.
Nonetheless, it must be possible to assess the utility of such organisations in a sensible manner. The India-China-Russia trilaterals can never move beyond the superficial because there is more binding the members bilaterally than there is in the pool of interests common to all three.
The BRIC summit cannot speak for emerging economies if it includes a commodity-driven economy like Russia but excludes a more vibrant Indonesia. At some point, if a multilateral organisation is too far divorced from the ground realities of international relations, there should be a hard-nosed assessment of whether it makes sense for India to become a member.
Ultimately, there is also a simple truth that India is, to a large extent, too important these days to be excluded or ignored. An emerging economies grouping without India would sound absurd. A short definition of a rising power: a country that can be selective.