IT is easy to call for reform of the United Nations as the centre of multilateralism and to advocate multipolarity, but as the G20 president, India will face the rifts created by multipolarity. ‘Multipolarity’ is a catch-all term favoured by any country which does not wish to be pushed around by any superpower. It implies a distribution of power between three or more countries or alliances. But the very countries favouring multipolarity — some of them G20 members, including India, China, Saudi Arabia, France and Germany — are divided about its meaning and aims.
The G20 was created in 1999 by six western allies and Japan to increase the engagement of developing countries in finding ways to advance global economic stability and sustainable growth, and also to prevent financial crisis.
The US, which was one of the G20’s creators, sometimes downplays its importance. For example, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan sees the G7 — which is dominated by the US and democratic European countries — as the ‘organising committee of the free world’. Of course, Washington knows that it cannot ignore middle powers at the G20. Their economic weight makes their support crucial to shaping the rules on trade, technology, sanctions and international norms. But New Delhi will also have to face the fact that neither the G20 nor the Global South, stretching across from Latin America, across Africa to the Far East, speaks with one voice.
Furthermore, there are broader, troublesome international security developments. Russia’s war in Ukraine has reconfirmed that military power determines global security. The war has placed the US, democratic Europe and Japan on the one side and Russia and China on the other. And most members of the G20 and many of the Global South countries voted against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at the UN.
Significantly, India’s partner in the Quad, Japan, is strengthening its defence ties with NATO countries, including Britain, with which it has just signed a pact, and with Italy and Germany. Increasing its defence spending, it is set to become the third largest military power in the world and in Asia, after the US and China.
In Europe, Germany endorses multipolarity because it does not want to weaken its strong economic ties with China at America’s behest, though it may lay stress on human rights in future dealings with China.
At another level, each G20 country calling for a multipolar world seeks to advance its national interests and enhance its global image. China is hostile to the US; India walks the tightrope between better ties with the US and time-tested ties with Russia.
Practising its version of multipolarity, India has kept itself aloof from western economic and diplomatic campaigns against Russia and Iran. So, it will join these countries in opening new shipping trade routes that could enable Russia to bypass Europe and western sanctions against Moscow. India could thus hope to avoid being restricted economically by the antagonisms between hostile trading blocs.
Advocates of multipolarity have recently played significant international roles. For instance, Saudi Arabia agreed with Russia to cut oil production. This has sent global oil prices soaring, but they couldn’t care less. India has avoided the price rise by buying oil at discount rates from Russia and annoying the US and European Union, which want to forge a united international front against a belligerent Russia with sanctions and an oil price cap.
On a different plane, India has blamed the UN for failing to solve old and new international crises, whether involving Kashmir, terrorism or the Ukraine-Russia war and the food and energy crises it has precipitated.
In contrast, China, which is India’s main challenger in Asia, does not criticise western-created multilateral institutions. It says the work done by its Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank complements the job done by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
Simultaneously, Beijing challenges India’s attempt to become the voice of the Global South through China’s Global Development Initiative (GDI). Beijing claims the GDI will focus on ‘people-centred development’ by helping poor countries recover in the post-pandemic era and will strengthen international development cooperation. The UN has welcomed the GDI, and more than 100 countries support it.
Meanwhile, China’s new Foreign Minister Qin Gang stuck to a three-decade-old tradition, when, on January 10, he started an official tour of five African countries to assure the continent of China’s help as a generous donor and politically experienced friend.
Despite these divisive political problems, the G20 presidency will be an opportunity for India to enhance confidence in multilateral frameworks by highlighting how the Global South can achieve sustainable development goals and steer itself out of the international economic and financial problems created by the Covid-19 pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine conflict. But India must take care not to give the impression that it is ignoring the highly developed Global North G20 countries, which comprise one-third of its members. And since most G20 countries, unlike India, voted against Russia at the UN, India should take care to prevent this political divide from putting hurdles in its way as the leader of a primarily economic grouping.
Moreover, since many developing countries in Asia and Latin America are ahead of India economically, New Delhi’s absence from any regional economic grouping leaves it going out on a limb, despite its G20 leadership. It needs to cultivate closer economic ties with South American, European and Asian countries to alter that image and to gain access to advanced technologies.
Last but not least, professing belief in ‘one world, one family’ as the current leader of the G20, India should forge domestic socio-political consensus; this is a prerequisite for its progress as an influential country. Only then will the aspiring international bridge-builder have reliable credentials to unite the interests of developing and industrialised countries.
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