G20 Summit: A lost opportunity for India, despite the extravaganza

As Modi turns the G20 summit this week into a spectacle, ‘it is difficult to see what leaders will be able to agree on this week’, reflected The Observer, London

One of the street decorations with the G20 logo reflecting the Indian tricolour (photo: Getty Images)
One of the street decorations with the G20 logo reflecting the Indian tricolour (photo: Getty Images)

Ashis Ray

The world is passing through a crisis. Russia’s designs on its western neighbour Ukraine have destabilised the global economy before it could recover fully from the ravages of the Covid pandemic. It has imperilled international food security, especially in African nations dependent on grain imports.

In the 21st century, war is best avoided; dialogue is desirable. Ukraine is merely the battleground of a proxy war. In reality, the hostilities are between Russia and the West. Therefore, the Kremlin and the White House needed to be encouraged to urgently negotiate a way out of the conflict. But although the Indian prime minister mouthed the right words in saying that this is not the era of war, has India done enough to end the war is the question being asked in Ukraine and several other capitals.

India’s historical position, particularly after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh clinched a breakthrough nuclear deal with President George Bush of the United States, was such that it could have played the role of an honest broker in persuading Russia and the United States to talk bilaterally at the G20. While this would admittedly have sidelined other issues and participants, it would have been a feather in India’s cap and the G20 summit in New Delhi could have been turned into a spectacular success.

Not that a resolution of a complicated issue was guaranteed. But the very breaking of the ice would have been a step forward; and India would have been widely appreciated for such an initiative.

However, the G20 summit under India’s presidency in substantive terms could well be heading for an unsuccessful outcome. While India claims to have hosted around 100 G20 meetings at various levels, at different venues, on subjects ranging from health to trade and international relations, most of the ministerial level meetings in the run-up to the summit failed to arrive at a consensus on the joint communiques.

The same fate appears to be sadly staring India in the face at the climax, unless there is a last-minute sleight of hand. Multilateralism — for this is what the G20 is about — demands diplomatic finesse, which diplomatic circles say has unfortunately been missing under Modi and a slavish external affairs minister S Jaishankar.

Post-Cold War multi-alignment meant India had emerged as genuinely equidistant from East–West confrontations. Both sides recognised this and respected New Delhi for it. Even China, India’s troublesome neighbour, notably desisted from mischief during Dr Singh’s prime ministership, indeed even gave ground on its ambivalence on Sikkim when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was head of government.

On the other hand, Modi’s premeditated tilt towards Washington as soon as he grabbed power has not deceived Moscow, notwithstanding Russia benefitting from 45 per cent of India’s military hardware being acquired from Russian factories and Indian refineries recently filling Kremlin coffers by purchasing crude from Siberian oilfields. India’s abstentions on votes at the United Nations on Ukraine have apparently been insufficient in swaying Russian president Vladimir Putin.

In 2018, Putin’s displeasure needed to be diluted with a reassuring meeting in Sochi, coupled with a $5.5 billion order for S-400 air defence missile systems. Modi appeased the Russian strongman by stating: "Russia is India’s old-time friend. We share long-standing historical ties, and Mr President is my personal friend and a friend of India."

It was fanciful of the RSS pracharak to think the former KGB agent was his ‘personal friend’. This has now been starkly enunciated by Putin skipping the G20 in Delhi. Considering India’s special relationship with Russia over half a century, it is a shock to whatever is left of the sensible external affairs establishment in India that Putin would let India down instead of standing by an old ally when its prestige was at stake.

Anyone who thinks Putin’s absence is a blessing in disguise is badly mistaken. They believe his presence at the summit would have caused friction. This is just the challenge a skilful diplomat should have welcomed. For it is the diplomats’ job to defuse tension.

India had a whole year to pave the ground for a Putin–Biden summit in New Delhi. Neither is likely to have rejected such an opening. While Biden’s position since Russian troops entered Ukrainian territory in February 2022 has of course become hardline, his avowed medium-term ambition was to befriend Russia to isolate China — President Richard Nixon having done just the opposite in 1972.

But it doesn’t seem to have even occurred to South Block that a major window existed, which would have hugely enhanced India’s global standing.

As for China, it knew from Modi’s exuberant visits to the country as chief minister of Gujarat that Modi nursed authoritarian tendencies. Jaishankar, as ambassador to China, accompanied him to meetings with Chinese officials and also indicated his allegiance to Modi’s ideas about foreign policy. He was rewarded with the post of foreign secretary by an unseemly ousting of the incumbent Sujatha Singh.

China’s incursions since 2020 into what was hitherto mutually respected as territory on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control are indefensible. Why has this happened when matters were relatively quiet on the Sino–Indian front during the decade of Congress-led United Progressive Alliance rule? The reason is again Modi’s overt cosying up to Washington.

Unlike Deng Xiaoping, who was a visionary, Xi Jinping is hawkish in the Maoist mould. He is an introvert without internationalist foresight. That he attended the BRICS meeting in South Africa last month but decided to stay away from the far more important G20 gathering is a deliberate snub, which might even have been further catalysed by a fractious meeting with Modi at Johannesburg.

Clearly, the readouts of the exchange issued by the Indian ministry of external affairs and the Chinese ministry of foreign affairs were at variance in their interpretation. The word ‘candid’ — used by the Chinese spokesperson — in diplomatic parlance translates to disagreement. That Xi stressed that 'improving China–India relations serves the common interests of the two countries and peoples' was a virtual suggestion that India should ignore the change of status quo on the border.

In effect, China did not corroborate the Indian foreign secretary Vinay Kwatra’s view that the two leaders agreed to work for an ‘expeditious de-escalation’ along the LAC.

A G20 Summit loaded with western heads of government is by no means ideal. The spirit of togetherness in tackling issues where there is a degree of consensus, such as climate change, will be missing. Besides, the conference is bound to be overshadowed by dispute on Ukraine.

Therein, though, lay scope for India to be peacemaker, regardless of some attendees being of the opinion that where New Delhi cannot even foster good ties with Pakistan, what locus standi does it have to propose a ceasefire in Ukraine?

‘It is difficult to see what leaders will be able to agree on when they gather for their meeting in New Delhi this week,’ said the 231-year-old British Sunday paper The Observer. It added: ‘The theme of the meeting is "One Earth, One Family, One Future" but in truth the G20 is riven by conflict and struggling to remain relevant.’

Modi typically seized on the G20 Summit for domestic consumption and electoral gain — as almost every move of his in the realm of foreign affairs has been. He will doubtless attempt to sell the event as virtually the United Nations headquarters relocating from New York to New Delhi, when in actual fact India is the 18th out of 19 G20 member countries (the European Union being the 20th) to stage the summit. Brazil will complete the rotation next year.

Where most previous hosts have approached the summit in a business-like, no-frills manner, Modi is treating it like a tamasha. It will be a plethora of photo-ops! A bonanza for cameras!

However, since the propagandist par excellence is otherwise incapable — to India’s misfortune — of engaging in meaningful conversation on international affairs, his ex officio chairmanship of the roundtable is likely to boil down to an unspontaneous conduct of plenary sessions.

Never in his career has Modi shown an aptitude or inclination for dialogue to iron out differences, whether with Muslims in Gujarat, Christians in Manipur or Opposition parties on matters of national interest. On the international stage, with his narrow RSS worldview, he is over and above out of his depth.

Russia, represented by its foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, is mandated to reject wording in any joint resolution which is remotely critical of its government’s actions in Ukraine. Meanwhile others, from the US to Japan, will oppose a watered-down mention of the subject.

In such circumstances, two separate statements cannot be ruled out. Beijing has so far not voted in favour of Russia at the UN, and like India, has remained neutral. What will it do in New Delhi?

China was prickly about a ministerial meeting taking place in Kashmir. Its ministry of foreign affairs’ spokesperson however said: "We support India in hosting this year’s summit and stand ready to work with all parties to make the G20 Summit a success." It will be interesting to see how this plays out in practice. China looks upon the G20 more as an economic entity than a political body.

The onus of a G20 Summit’s success rests largely with the host. The roll of the dice is such that at this juncture, India has an unenviable task.

There was divergence at Indonesia as well last year, where a compromise declaration had to be arrived at. Subsequently, following intensification of the Russia–Ukraine war, attitudes have hardened further.

So, the prospects are foreboding. Yet, a bold move by India on the Ukraine issue might have spared Modi the blushes.

The G20 summit in New Delhi, however, looks like an opportunity lost for India.

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