Negotiating with the world, by definition, entails geopolitics. All negotiations involve a detailed consideration of the geopolitical imperatives of the participating countries. Thus, governments carry out an assessment of how joining an international agreement serves certain geopolitical objectives. Equally, countries can also come under pressure from their strategic partners to join an international agreement or to take positions on landmark events like the war in Ukraine. India is certainly no exception to this.

Previously, when India enjoyed less clout, it was customary for more powerful players such as the US or the EU to pressurise us to join international agreements or to take a certain position on international issues. At present though, it is not impossible for India to resist such pressure. The result is often a complex negotiation between India and its strategic partners, involving some give and take that may lead to a disagreement, a stalemate or mutually acceptable outcomes.

The Uruguay Round of trade negotiations, which lasted from 1986 to 1994 provides a perfect example of how India, a relatively weak player in those GATT days, had to face the mighty coalition of the US, EU and Japan when it came to accepting the results of the Uruguay Round. The most vivid example of India coming up against geopolitical compulsions is the one relating to TRIPS in the multilateral trading system. As is well known, India vehemently opposed the inclusion of IPRs in the negotiating mandate of the Uruguay Round. When that became impossible to resist, India continued to maintain till 1989, that the Uruguay Round mandate for IPRs was confined to trade in counterfeit goods and anti-competitive practices of the right holders and that the mandate did not extend to substantive norms and standards for the protection of IPRs. Indeed, the mandate was worded vaguely and was far from substantive.

However, in April 1989 at the Trade Negotiations Committee meeting in Geneva, India made a volte-face and agreed to the inclusion of substantive norms and standards for the protection and enforcement of IPRs within the scope of the TRIPS mandate. AV Ganesan, a key Indian negotiator for TRIPS and a member of the delegation at the Trade Negotiations Committee meeting in Geneva, gives reasons for this change of stand.58 The tipping point, he admits candidly, was the “pressure exerted by the United States through its unilateral actions under Section 301 of the US Trade Act 1974 and the Special 301 provisions of the US Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act 1988.” This was important for the US because India was perhaps the last major developing country standing in opposition to the proposed TRIPS Agreement.

It may be worth noting that the Berlin Wall fell just months after April 1989, and the final disintegration of the Soviet Union also took place a couple of years after April 1989. So, it is fair to assume that in April 1989 the US was on the eve of becoming the sole superpower; it was the so-called unipolar moment if you like. India, on the other hand, was yet to embark on economic reforms and by 1991 was facing bankruptcy. The strategic disparity between a unipolar US and an economically weak India could not be starker. India could not have resisted the pressure from the US in 1989 in the matter of TRIPS negotiations in the WTO. It was purely a matter of geopolitics.

Fast forward to November 2001 in Doha where the WTO negotiations were delicately poised. It was far from clear that the ministerial meeting would be successful in launching a new round of trade negotiations. This time around, the US had come to Doha with the clear intention to launch a new “Round”. Geopolitical factors, such as the profound impact of the events of 9/11 for instance, led quite a few to feel that the Doha ministerial meet must succeed or else the terrorists would have won.61 The US did show some flexibility in concluding the declaration on TRIPS and Public Health to the general satisfaction of the African Group and key countries, such as India and Brazil. Nevertheless, yet again we see geopolitical factors (such as 9/11) at play, which can profoundly impact the direction and outcome of multilateral trade negotiations.

The climate change negotiations, which culminated in a successful accord in Paris in 2015, were also a perfect demonstration of how geopolitical factors influence climate negotiations.

It is generally believed that India’s position on climate change negotiations started changing just before Copenhagen (2009) and it subsequently became clear that India too was willing to make commitments and undertake obligations. There are of course several reasons for this shift with a focus on climate change. It is nevertheless interesting to note that some scholars felt geopolitical reasons were also behind the shift in India’s position. In an article published by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the authors Himangana Gupta, Ravinder Kohli and Amrik Singh Ahluwalia argued that the shift in India’s negotiating posture received international acclaim and quoted other experts to say that India became an emerging power in international climate negotiations because of a strategic reorientation. The authors also argued that India thus disengaged from G77 on the issue of climate change and aligned its position with that of the US.

This is certainly questionable, but it is hard to deny that geopolitical considerations did play an important role in the evolution of India’s negotiating position. For instance, well-known Indian climate change scholar Lavanya Rajamani argued that India’s ratification of the Paris Climate Change Accords in 2015 would also strengthen Indo-American ties, given that climate change had been high on President Obama’s agenda.

Other scholars such as D Raghunandan were critical of India’s shift in position but nevertheless argued that India was seeking to advance a strategic alliance with the US. Given this, it is cruelly ironic that the US under President Trump decided to pull out of the Paris Climate Change Accords. But this broad geopolitical orientation appears to have guided India at the COP26 meeting in Glasgow in 2021 when PM Modi announced that India would adhere to net zero emissions by 2070. Geopolitics continued to guide India, which supported a “loss and damage” fund at the COP27 meeting in Sharm El-Sheikh knowing full well it may not have access to this fund at all.

In a similar vein, geopolitical considerations also seem to have played an important role in India agreeing in 2015 to phase out Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) under the Montreal Protocol. Earlier, India was opposed to doing this under the Montreal Protocol and wished this to be done by developed countries under the aegis of the Kyoto Protocol. Indeed, during the visit by PM Modi to Washington in September 2014 it was clearly stated in a Joint Statement that the two leaders “recognised the need to use the institutions and expertise of the Montreal Protocol to reduce the consumption and production of HFCs.”

And true enough in April 2015, India submitted a proposal to the Montreal Protocol for phasing out HFCs with a grace period of fifteen years. Yet again, India appears to have had strategic imperatives to put itself in broad agreement with the US.

Excerpted with permission from India’s Moment: Changing Power Equations around the World, Mohan Kumar, HarperCollins India.