Column | India as Chairman of G20: Opportunity and challenge

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Indonesia's President Joko Widodo hold hands during the handover ceremony at the G20 Leaders' Summit, in Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia, November 16, 2022. Photo: Reuters/Willy Kurniawan/Pool

“India played an essential role in negotiating the summit’s declaration. Prime Minister Modi made clear that today’s era must not be of war,” said the White House Spokesperson at the end of the G20 summit in Bali.

President Biden himself reiterated the same sentiment later. This is the first time that the US has expressed appreciation of the Indian position on the Russia-Ukraine war.

This is the first time that the US has expressed appreciation of the Indian position on the Russia-Ukraine war. Photo: Reuters/Tom Brenner

The two leaders had reviewed India-US relations, leading to the inevitable conclusion that it was time to remove irritants.

This augurs well for India’s Chairmanship of G20, which has just begun.

The practice of rotating leadership positions in alphabetical order in multilateral bodies, including the UN Security Council, occasionally places the right country and the right leader in the right place at the right time.

A case in point is the assumption of the Chairmanship of G20 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Even before he formally took over as Chairman, he and the Indian delegation made an indelible impression on the Bali Declaration. Many words and ideas in it were virtually lifted from Indian statements made at the highest level on different occasions.

This was possible because India had assumed a neutral position on the most urgent subject discussed in Bali.

The group was virtually unanimous in its demand for cessation of hostilities and negotiations, a position that India had taken from the very beginning. Russian President Vladimir Putin did not attend and his Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, was virtually isolated.

India, as Chairman of G20 from now on, will be at the centre of the international effort to end the war as a communicator, if not as a mediator, and even the US and NATO will look up to India as a catalyst in the negotiations.

G20 Logo | Photo: Twitter/@PiyushGoyal

But it will be a virtual minefield which India has to traverse as any failure will be attributed to India.

China will be particularly wary of India’s moves and will try hard to deprive India of any glory.

In effect, India is entering an area, which angels fear to tread. Its self-proclaimed role of “Mahaguru” will be put to the severest test.

Jinping shines
The winner in Bali, it appears, is Xi Jinping, who has returned to the international scene with the aura of a lifetime leader.

Chinese President Xi Jinping attends a meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the G20 leaders' summit in Bali, Indonesia. Photo: Reuters/ Kevin Lamarque

Bali marked  Xi Jinping’s emergence from three years of self-imposed pandemic isolation, with every world leader keen to secure a chat and photo opportunity with the Chinese leader.

Despite condemnation of Chinese human rights abuses and anxiety over its intentions in the Taiwan Strait, the largely positive tone set by Xi’s bilateral engagement with US President Joe Biden continued until the end of the summit.

But there were also opportunities for Xi’s counterparts to communicate their grievances in person.

Anthony Albanese, the first Australian prime minister to meet Xi since 2016, described their meeting as “positive and constructive”, but had raised the detention of the Australian citizens as well as human rights abuses against the Uyghur population in Xinjiang.

The French President Macron, meanwhile, asked Xi to persuade Putin to negotiate an end to the war in Ukraine and reportedly said he would like to visit China next year, Covid-19 restrictions permitting.

Xi and Japan’s Prime Minister, Fumio Kishida, held their first face-to-face talks in Bali.

Xi publicly reprimanded the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for leaking the content of their conversation to the press.

Xi publicly reprimanded the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for leaking the content of their conversation to the press. Photo: Reuters/Christinni Muschi

When Trudeau offered further discussion, he said arrogantly that the atmosphere should become congenial for more talks.

The summit was dominated by geopolitics, though the Indonesians had wanted to focus on food and energy security and the climate crisis.

The Biden-Xi meeting dominated the business on the first day. On the next day, the G20 quickly became an ad hoc meeting of the G7, as leaders huddled to discuss their response to the news that a Russian made missile had landed in Poland killing two people on the Poland-Ukraine border.

To Russia’s relief, the missiles turned out to have strayed from the Ukrainian armoury.

Blame on Russia
The Bali Joint Declaration is an indictment of Russia, recalling how action by the UN was thwarted by the veto of the aggressor.

“Most members strongly condemned the war in Ukraine and stressed it is causing immense human suffering and exacerbating existing fragilities in the global economy — constraining growth, increasing inflation, disrupting supply chains, heightening energy and food insecurity, and elevating financial stability risks.There were other views and different assessments of the situation and sanctions. Recognizing that the G20 is not the forum to resolve security issues, we acknowledge that security issues can have significant consequences for the global economy.”

On the climate emergency, G20 leaders simply said they had resolved to “pursue efforts to limit the rise in global temperatures to 1.5C”, including speeding up efforts to “phase down” the unabated use of coal.

As expected, COP 27 concluded in Egypt without any significant result.

No 'family photo' this time
World leaders did not take part in the usual official “family photo” because of widespread discomfort at Russia’s presence at the summit.

Lavrov stayed in his seat while Ukrainian President Zelenskyy pointedly referred to the “G19” – the G20 minus Russia – in a video address.

Even India and China, which had abstained on most of the anti-Russian resolutions, did not try to dilute the condemnation of Russia.

Sino-US ties
Biden’s first meeting as President with Xi indicated that the “reset” in relations between the two superpowers had begun.

Biden went some way towards soothing regional nerves by declaring that he had no reason to believe that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan was imminent, but he did not shy away from condemning Beijing’s provocative military manoeuvres around the island this summer.

However, he placated Xi with assurances that Washington had not departed from its “One China” policy.

The official Chinese account described the talks as “thoroughgoing, frank and constructive”, adding that officials from both governments would build on areas of consensus – a step forward compared with the rancour of recent months.

Sunak makes a mark
Rishi Sunak’s diplomatic debut was a modest success despite the looming crisis at home.

His strongly worded condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – and the stare he directed at Lavrov – will have gone down well in Kyiv.

Rishi Sunak’s diplomatic debut was a modest success despite the looming crisis at home. Photo: Reuters

Sunak’s planned meeting with Xi was called off because of time constraints, but his eagerness to meet the Chinese leader was interpreted as a departure from his predecessor’s tough approach to Beijing, and was in keeping with the summit’s less confrontational tone towards the world’s second-biggest economy.

Taking stock
The larger part of the 52-paragraph declaration was detailed in its analysis of the global problems and their solution.

But it was nothing more than pious declarations as it was clear that the end of the war is a precondition for global recovery after the pandemic and the disarray in the global economy on account of the war.

Now, over to India
Prime Minister Modi, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and the entire Indian Government machinery are gearing up for a spectacular year of conferences and shows to make use of the opportunity the G20 Chairmanship has bestowed on us.

It will also be a boon for the BJP in its election bid in 2024.

But if the war continues and the global economy collapses, India will be held responsible at least to some extent.

China, on the other hand, will pursue their objectives vigorously, without the burden of the leadership of the team. For India, the opportunity is welcome, but the challenge is huge in 2023.

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