The baton of the G20 president was formally handed over to PM Modi in Bali by the Indonesian President Joko Widodo on November 16 and the outcome of this summit is relevant to India at many levels that are interlinked. The G20 agenda, much to the dismay of the host, was overshadowed by the bilateral meeting between the US President and his Chinese counterpart, as also the long-drawn-out war in Ukraine and a missile strike on Poland. However to his credit, President Widodo was able to ‘herd the cats’, as it were, and steer the deliberations towards a final joint communiqué which is a remarkable demonstration of his resolve in dealing with all kinds of high-octane challenges and political minefields in the months preceding the Bali summit.
While India has the pedigree and potential to play a valuable global role, this cannot be at the cost of jeopardising its own core national interests.
The G20, as a group of major economies, has been meeting since 2008 when the global financial crisis jolted the world, and consequently, geo-economics and related development indicators that impact human security is the principal focus of the summit-level deliberations. Diplomats and domain experts (the sherpas) work diligently for months to ensure that there is a substantive consensus document at the end of such a meeting. But Bali was buffeted by many complex and strong geopolitical undercurrents that have convulsed the global geo-economic landscape and the security of the more vulnerable demography of the world.
The war in Ukraine, triggered by the imprudent Russian invasion in late February, is now poised to enter the 10th month and the impact of this military misadventure by Moscow has severely degraded food and energy security globally, and the rather disturbing reference to nuclear weapons has further muddied the waters. Concurrently, the deliberations in Egypt, where COP 27 was being held, drew attention to yet another intractable global challenge — climate change: and the inability of the global elite to arrive at an effective consensus to address an issue whose urgency and corrosive enormity to irreparably damage the very vitality of the planet needs little reiteration.
Hence the geopolitical shadow in Bali was inevitable and the other major strategic dissonance was the increasing tension between the US and China, wherein the leaders of the two nations have been grappling with their domestic political compulsions and managing a complicated bilateral dependency-cum-security anxiety about the ‘other’ interlocutor, in a brittle major power dyadic relationship.
Thus the most critical part of the joint statement issued by the G20 Summit was more geopolitical in nature, and from the Indian perspective, there was also an implicit acknowledgement of PM Modi’s exhortation to Russian President Vladimir Putin regarding war not being an option in this day and age. The relevant section asserted: ‘The use or threat of use of nuclear weapons is inadmissible. The peaceful resolution of conflicts, efforts to address crises, as well as diplomacy and dialogue, are vital. Today’s era must not be of war.’
Whether this counsel will be hoisted by both Russia and Ukraine remains moot — but there will be an expectation that since the UN Security Council is paralysed (given that Russia, a P5 member, is the principal belligerent in the war in Ukraine), the G20, with India as the president, in tandem with other nations, could perhaps play a substantive role in brokering peace.
It is a slender hope, for China appears to be ambivalent about its role in the Ukraine conflict since the Sino-Russian bilateral has been cast as one that will seek to resist what Beijing and Moscow perceive to be US hegemony and perfidy in relation to the current global strategic framework.
Against this backdrop, the Biden-Xi Jinping meeting on the sidelines of the Bali summit elicited enormous interest and while the three-hour bilateral meeting did not lead to any significant breakthrough, it served the purpose of demonstrating to a weary world that there was no breakdown in the Washington-Beijing engagement — however prickly and guarded it may be.
For India, these two bilateral relationships – the US-China on the one hand and the China-Russia on the other – and the manner in which their contours emerge will have a very significant relevance, both by way of assuaging Delhi’s anxieties and helping realise its aspirations.
The Indian discomfiture with China, post the Galwan clash, is palpable, even if it is not articulated explicitly by the Modi government. Post Bali, any radical improvement or deterioration in the US-China bilateral will temper Delhi’s options in dealing with the Xi agenda apropos territoriality and the non-negotiable historical Chinese claim to disputed regions. Can India aspire to have a meaningful and result-oriented tenure as the G20 president if it is locked in an intractable territorial dispute with China?
The ultimate denouement of the Ukraine war will define what kind of a Russia will emerge from the fallout of this tangled conflict and the degree to which it can be a credible partner for India, both by way of being a major military inventory supplier and an empathetic politico-diplomatic interlocutor on the global stage.
As India assumes the G20 responsibility on December 1, the historical recall with November 17, 1962, when Delhi had to face the ignominy of a national security meltdown in dealing with China cannot be ignored. While India has the pedigree and the potential to play a valuable global role, this cannot be at the cost of jeopardising its own core national interests that are abiding.
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