India’s G20 presidency is perhaps the most ambitious and grandest in the forum’s history. The recently concluded New Delhi summit was notable for its outlook of the ‘middle path’ to reconcile with the differences arising out of global geopolitical faultlines.
Twenty-five leaders from around the world arrived in New Delhi in the second week of September 2023 for the annual G20 summit, in which seventeen of them represented G20 member states and the rest attending as invitees. While the leaders of Russia, China and Mexico chose not to show up, the landmark summit witnessed the fruition of a long-time Indian demand for the induction of the African Union as a permanent member in the forum.
Among the core issues of global economic importance, the joint leaders’ declaration released during the summit called for peacefully resolving conflicts, reforming multilateral institutions, managing global debt vulnerabilities and urged all states to refrain from the threat or use of force, including the use of nuclear weapons. The words of host Prime Minister Modi that “today’s era must not be of war” was also included among the eight paragraphs relating to geopolitical issues, or rather the Ukraine crisis.
In the 37-page joint declaration, the leaders reaffirmed their collective stance that G20 is not a platform to resolve geopolitical or security issues, even while acknowledging the consequences it may pose to the global economy. The declaration has also given a substantial focus on emerging technologies and various policy initiatives to mitigate the climate crisis, including ways to ensure sustainable climate finance and clean energy transition.
Two new initiatives with global and regional implications were launched on the sidelines of the summit – one on biofuels spearheaded by India and the other is a set of two new economic corridors. While one aims to connect India with Europe via West Asia, the other aims to improve connectivity in the landlocked inner areas of the African continent. Both these corridors entail an improvement of trade and infrastructure as part of the larger G7-led Partnership for Global Infrastructure Investment (PGII), which is largely seen as a Western response to China’s inter-continental Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
An early consensus and a language of compromise
The previous G20 presidency held by Indonesia put forth the “Bali Declaration” in 2022 that strongly condemned Russia for its aggression against Ukraine and even went ahead to demand a “complete and unconditional withdrawal” of Russia from the captured Ukrainian territories, while acknowledging that there were “other views and different assessments of the situation”. These differences unavoidably spilled into the Indian G20 presidency as well, which reflected in all G20 meetings of 2023 held at the official and ministerial levels prior to the summit.
Reaching a consensus on more than a hundred items included on the agenda list after two hundred hours of negotiations and working on fifteen drafts can be read as a diplomatic win for host India, particularly considering the widening rifts in contemporary geopolitics. One of the most significant issues facing the world today is what the Indian Prime Minister described as “global trust deficit” resulting from the pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine conflict that has entered its twentieth month. The latter issue was the most contentious of all and a unanimous adoption of the leaders’ declaration came as a surprise.
It was expected that Russia, a close historical partner of India, could possibly hinder a joint declaration if it insisted on reflecting its views in the document. On the contrary, India managed to reach a consensus on the very first day of the summit, in a rare occurrence. Even though the joint declaration had no mention or condemnation of Russia, it has made a generic point that “all states must refrain from the threat or the use of force to seek territorial acquisition against the territorial integrity and sovereignty or political independence of any state”, reflecting a language of compromise that shed light on the social and humanitarian angle of the conflict rather than holding Russia accountable for its actions.
When the declaration was made public, the Ukrainian foreign ministry expressed its displeasure by stating that it had “nothing to be proud of”, while Russia referred to it as “balanced” position. China, which earlier opposed any blame being put solely on Russia, has also backed the joint declaration as Russian sensitivities were taken into account. Notably, Japan played a critical role in harnessing Western support for India by bridging communication gaps with the latter. Japan is the only Asian country that is part of both the West-led G7 and the G20, and it also holds the current G7 presidency. India and Japan, being Quad members and development partners, are mutually supportive of each other when it comes to bridging gaps between the West and the developing world, even on issues beyond Ukraine.
Quiet internal power tussles
G20 is an all-encompassing forum in which emerging economies, whether developed or developing, allied or non-aligned, equally find a place to fit in. All member states of the G7 and the European Union, representing the U.S.-led Western alliance, happen to be a subset of the G20 and so do the members of the BRICS grouping that is largely led by the Russia-China combine. These two internal blocs within the G20 are opposed to each other’s interests. Then there is an emerging third bloc of the Global South or the developing world in which India is trying to carve its own space, even while simultaneously taking part in the West-led groupings such as the Quad and the Russia-China combine led groupings such as the BRICS. The African Union’s G20 entry at the New Delhi summit should be read in this context.
When the G20 was founded, it was not envisaged as a platform to give room for geopolitical divides as it was supposed to exist only for international economic cooperation. However, the last two G20 summits have seen geopolitical elements spilling into the forum’s deliberations, particularly as a consequence of maximalist stances taken by rival blocs within the forum. The consensus reached in New Delhi can largely be seen as a result of the West agreeing to dial down its earlier stance that is reflected in the Bali Declaration of 2022, which strictly put the blame on Russia for the crisis in Ukraine, even though it never addressed the question of NATO’s continuing expansion to Russia’s borders.
During negotiations on the joint declaration, the Indian side reportedly remained straightforward on the issues to be addressed and relentlessly engaged in open talks. It can also be inferred that India’s evolving new dynamics with the West played a larger role than its historical relationship with Russia in forging the consensus document. India is now recognised as a key balancing middle power by the U.S.-led West against China in Asia and there is a growing realisation in the West that it needs to tone down its rhetoric on Russia to bring India closer to its side and also to prevent China from furthering its opportunistic aims at the expense of G20’s perceived non-success.
Setting aside this ostensible Western compromise, the past decade has already seen India getting closer to the West as the former continues to diversify its arms supplies away from Russia and is in need of strong partners to hedge against an increasingly belligerent China at the border. New Delhi is well aware of Moscow’s limitations and possibilities when it comes to decisively dealing with Beijing from time to time. China has also reportedly raised objections on the inclusion of Sanskrit phrases or Indian-language acronyms to be included in the G20 outcome documents. President Xi Jinping’s decision not to travel to India for the G20 summit clearly shows that he does not intend to improve the deteriorating ties with India any time soon, as evident from Beijing’s untimely release of a new standard map when the G20 summit was around the corner.
Moreover, China’s new nomenclature for Indian border villages in Arunachal Pradesh and the continuing denial of India’s patrolling rights in Ladakh throws light on Beijing’s expansionist intentions, including its displeasure for sharing the global limelight with another rising Asian power. China’s overarching engagement of African countries in the recent past tends to be something that both India and the G7 wishes to address together by offering sustainable alternatives to the suspicious and debt-trap-ridden projects offered by China. G20’s new announcements for the continent in New Delhi apparently reflects this intent.
India sets new precedents and standards
In New Delhi, G20 delegates and leaders were given a glimpse of India’s game-changing soft power of technological innovation through specially arranged pavilions at the summit venue, particularly its digital public infrastructure, along with a magnificent display of symbols handpicked from India’s civilisational ethos and composite heritage. The Indian presidency also saw the breaking of customary norms and the setting of new precedents and standards for the next presidencies to follow.
In a departure from previous summits, the 2023 leaders’ declaration titled “G20 New Delhi Leaders’ Declaration” was made public on the first day itself, instead of putting it out at the conclusion of the two-day event, so was the decision to hold the summit in the month of September instead of November, when India’s tenure of presidency ends. In the run-up to the summit, a series of interactions were also arranged at multiple tracks of diplomacy by engaging people, the industry, academia and the civil society, the most noteworthy of all being the “Voice of the Global South” summit, held in January this year.
Among other talking points, India managed to convince the negotiating parties to include counter-terrorism as an issue of focus in the G20 joint declaration, being itself a victim of cross-border terrorism. The New Delhi summit has also subtly reminded the world that India’s soft power is not just limited to its arts, culture and demographic dividend, but it also includes the country’s impressive achievements in the fields of high-end technology and innovation.
With this successful G20 summit, India’s diplomatic profile has reached at an all-time high and its multilateral initiatives are finding global acceptance as evident from the 2019-launched Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative and the Global Biofuel Alliance launched on the sidelines of the New Delhi summit, which is in fact the second international platform for climate mitigation led by India after the 2015-launched International Solar Alliance. Moreover, India’s highly-appreciated vaccine diplomacy, humanitarian operations during disasters in different parts of the world, including its contributions to the UN peacekeeping missions have also earned it substantial goodwill in the global stage.
When India took over G20’s presidency in December last year as the seventeenth country to do so since 2008, it was keen on giving a signature touch to its presidency in a way like never seen before, and the whole country was mobilised and prepared for the same. This was seen in holding the G20 meetings in multiple cities from north to south and east to west, thereby setting a new standard for successive presidencies to emulate. About a hundred thousand delegates from over 125 countries around the world participated in about 200 meetings held across 60 Indian cities since the beginning of the presidency.
While heritage cities like Khajuraho and Varanasi were carefully chosen, cities of technological fame like Bengaluru and Pune also found their place among the G20 venues. The age-old Buddhist wisdom of the “middle path”, which avoids a position of extremities, is seen to have subtly reflected in the New Delhi Declaration. India has carved its own space in the world of international relations since the dawn of the post-colonial epoch. Its pro-active foreign policy, particularly non-alignment that metamorphosed into multi-alignment today, was seen as a shrewd way to circumvent taking sides amid prevailing great power rivalries, a reality that still holds true. There is no doubt that India is punching above its weight at all levels of its international engagement, a trend which is poised to persist in the years to come.