There is little doubt that the G20 summit has proved to be PM Modi’s crowning diplomatic achievement. In the end, despite what the naysayers said, his team managed to obtain a consensual summit statement that bridged the huge divide between the Western position on Ukraine and that of China and Russia.
The second significant achievement was to induct the African Union (AU) as a permanent member. The AU represents 55 member states in Africa, some with fast-growing economies; it will account for a quarter of the world’s population by 2050.
The Delhi Declaration did not categorically condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine or demand, as did last year’s Bali Declaration, Russia’s “complete and unconditional withdrawal from the territory of Ukraine”.
It called on nations to uphold the international law and the UN Charter and “refrain from the threat or use of force to seek territorial acquisition against the territorial integrity and sovereignty or political independence of any state.” The Russians were cynically game for this formulation, and the West, keen to boost Modi’s success, went along with it.
The declaration reminded us that G20 is about international economic cooperation and not geopolitical issues, though the latter can have consequences for the global economy. The declaration also highlighted “the human suffering and negative impacts of the war in Ukraine” on the Global South on account of “food and energy security, supply chains, macro-financial stability, inflation and growth.”
The summit was as much about Modi as India, the rising power. The Prime Minister has, of course, made sure that everyone knows about it. His photos were everywhere in New Delhi on the posters telling us about the summit and its goals. The capital city was cleaned up, whitewashed and wherever necessary, slum areas were screened off to ensure that Delhi presented its shining face to G20 leaders and officials.
US President Joe Biden and other top leaders were welcomed to the city on Friday. There were notable absentees — Presidents Xi Jinping of China and Vladimir Putin of Russia. The disagreements over the war in Ukraine cast a shadow over the summit and detracted from its real focus, which is the relationship between the world’s leading economies (G7), the 12 emerging economies and the European Union, which together make up the G20.
The way India has seized the opportunity provided by the G20 presidency to project itself has been remarkable. A lot of money has been spent on what is not a coronation by our peers, but merely a rotational presidency. The somewhat over-the-top approach was aimed at a domestic audience rather than a global one.
That India has a geopolitical sweet spot of sorts has been apparent for some time. Things are going well for the country, which has emerged as the most populous nation in the world and is among the fastest-growing major economies worldwide. There is little doubt that the world views it as a rising global power and its heft in international gatherings has grown significantly.
The deliberate effort of spreading G20 activities around the nation — 200-odd events in 60 cities — has ensured that even if the rest of the world did not pay too much attention, the growing Indian middle class has taken note. Dozens of cities gained from the largesse offered by the government in its year-long observance of the event, which, in true Indian style, has looked more like a mela.
International summits are supposed to be about declarations and outcomes. This is true of the Delhi event as well. While the AU membership and the crossing of the Ukraine bridge were significant achievements, most of the expected outcomes—embracing technological innovation, spreading digital public infrastructure, reforming multilateral development banks or acting on climate change, or even the Black Sea grain initiative — are yet to be realised. Neither did the presence of the G7 leaders give us a clear-cut picture of how they will spur the development of the Global South nations and assist their economies to cope with climate change.
A big question that roiled the summit was the uncharacteristic absence of Xi Jinping. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, Xi had been one of the world’s most travelled leaders. He didn’t travel during the two years of the pandemic, and this year he has been out of China only twice.
There is a great deal of speculation about why he did not come to New Delhi. The Chinese themselves have given no explanation for his absence. The reasons are likely to be multiple — the desire to play down the summit being hosted by India, economic woes back home and the growing rift with the US and the EU.
But a major factor is likely to be a shift in China’s approach to geopolitical issues. In recent years, Beijing has only paid lip service to the notion of multilateralism. With its relations with the US having reached a point of no return, it figured that there was little value in participating in a forum in which the US was bound to play a significant role. Its preference now is to push multilateral forums such as BRICS, Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) or the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA), of which the US is not a member.
This is not good news for multilateralism. Countries such as India can even now play an outsized role as a bridge between the two, but it would require uncommon application and a bit of luck.
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