What India can’t lose sight of with its G-20 presidency

India will need diplomatic clarity on what it can do in tandem with its presidential agenda. However, it must stay clear of the mediatory trap.

ByAnand Vardhan
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What India can’t lose sight of with its G-20 presidency
The 17th G-20 summit wrapped up earlier this week in Indonesia.
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As the G-20 summit wrapped up earlier this week in Indonesia, the stage is now set for India to take over the group’s presidency from December 1. The next few months will see India explore various fusions of its leadership of an influential multilateral group  and its core interests on the high table of global diplomacy. This, however, might need deft handling to leverage gains for itself in a role which entails India presiding over a wide range of 200 meetings of the group before it culminates in the 18th summit of the G-20 heads of the government and state in September next year in New Delhi. 

Amid other factors, India would need diplomatic clarity on what it can do in tandem with the presidential agenda and what interests it needs to pursue – detached from the same or despite its one-year centrality in G-20 structure. 

The joint declaration of the Bali summit mirrored the run-up to the meet – G-20 coming to terms with a world yet to fully recover from the jolt of the pandemic and in the grip of the long Ukraine war, economic slowdown, and the food and energy supply crisis. Even if India did manage to leave an imprint on the drafting of the final text of the declaration, a role that even the White House spokesperson acknowledged, Indian diplomacy needs to keep the elbow room for itself in any collective line that the group might take.

Expectedly, energy and food security engaged the summit meet, especially seen in context of the Ukraine war. But, the text also reflects that concerns about international law and order, and the sufferings of the Ukraine war and further threats don’t mean that every member condemned Russian action – some members decided against blaming Russia alone.

So the ‘consensus’ text, as Indian foreign secretary Vinay Mohan Kwatra mentioned, notes the broader concerns but also registers the decision of some G-20 members to stay away from signalling only one side of the conflict. Even if the summit did use in its text the Indian prime minister’s “today’s is not an era of war” quip at the SCO summit in Samarkand in September, India is well aware of the context and limits of such generality in its delicate navigation of highly valued and strategic ties with Russia. 

It wasn’t a point of departure; India’s approach of ‘cessation of hostilities’ can be traced to early days of the conflict. So any claim to the contrary was always a case of blowing the remark out of proportion. India’s subsequent diplomatic interactions and voting pattern at UNSC have made it clear that India isn’t anywhere near being weaned away from taking a strategically autonomous stand on its time-honoured ties with Russia. 

It’s expected that the G-20 presidency would imply a more proactive role for India in attempting conflict resolution, given the fact that it has some leverage of a favourable  audience in both Moscow and Kyiv. That, however, should never mean that India must tread into the diplomatically fraught zone of mediation. 

Within the G-20, which includes a number of western powers of the developed world along with emerging economies, India may be into the mediatory space, but it should not consider the same.  As a section of  foreign policy commentary has perceptively observed, such mediatory roles not only bring little diplomatic rewards but in the process also expose the extent of bilateral or global clout. In the interest of competitive power projection, it is unwise to fall for the mediatory trap. Moreover, from a different era, though not from the too distant past, India carries the scarred memory of burning its fingers in its Afghanistan mediation efforts in the 1980s. It was talked into mediating by the US, the results of which the Indian government could regret only in hindsight. 

Besides this immediate issue with which G-20 will grapple for next few months, the bloc’s presidency will also hold informal sway over the multilateral body, setting and guiding the group agenda.

For an emerging economy like India, it could stand in good stead, considering that G-20 members account for 80 percent of the world’s GDP, 75 percent of international trade and 80 percent of global population. The financial coordination record of the meeting could be watched for India’s anchoring, and so would India’s impetus to the long-drawn talks on reforming financial bodies such as the IMF and World Bank or even the WTO, where the global south has often run into serious differences with the developed world.

In balancing the wide-ranging diplomatic mandate of a multilateral bloc’s presidency for a year with India’s core diplomatic interests, India’s foreign policy would look at strategic autonomy in a new light, a glow of the role.

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