Harsh V Pant
As the G20 summit successfully concluded in New Delhi last week, it managed to generate some positive headlines for India globally. Even India’s staunchest critics had to concede that contrary to their expectations, New Delhi managed to pull off a successful summit at a time when geopolitical and developmental fault-lines have been sharpening by the day.
Despite the absence of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin (and perhaps because of it), a large part of the world agreed and put its stamp on India’s global developmental priorities. A strong message has gone out from New Delhi that India is now, more than ever, willing to lead from the front and shedding its perpetual reticence of yore.
But the real story of the G20 is not about the global multilateral order and its challenges.
Failing and flailing multilateralism is not going to be revived anytime soon just because India believes that it should or that India managed to bring the African Union into the hallowed confines of the G20. The revival of global institutions depends on how key stakeholders, especially major powers, relate to each other as the balance of power evolves rapidly. India as a middle power can only try to push for greater dynamism by reminding the world that existing global institutions are not at all representative of the emerging world order.
Therefore, the real story at the G20 was what it revealed of underlying trends in India’s foreign policy trajectory. The G20 process and outcomes this year have been a saga of New Delhi coming to terms with its own foreign policy priorities. The most significant trend shaping Indian external engagement today is the extraordinary convergence between Washington and New Delhi.
The fact that Prime Minister Narendra Modi scripted the outcome of the G20 with US President Joe Biden’s unwavering support underscores the transformation of a relationship that is increasingly global in scope. India and the US often used to be antagonists on global platforms, but today Washington is ready to take a step back if it means New Delhi gaining an advantage. Of course, this is not being done out of the goodness of its heart, but to ensure that India-US ties continue to shape global outcomes. India is getting better at leveraging its convergences with the US.
This widespread American support for India is, therefore, transforming New Delhi’s ties with the wider West. Though Europe was initially reluctant to support the dilution of G20 language on Ukraine, Washington was key in bridging this divide with India. New Delhi is acutely aware that at a time when China’s rise is shaping global strategic priorities, a robust engagement with the West is a policy imperative. Despite the challenge posed by Ukraine, India’s ties with the West have been strengthened.
It was this understanding of India’s position on Russia that not only made the New Delhi Declaration possible, but also allowed India to keep its channels of communication with Moscow open. The Russia question is today central in Indian foreign policy discourse. Managing ties with a declining power is a tough job in diplomacy and New Delhi remains keen to assuage Russian concerns that it plans to abandon it.
This again was reflected in the way India approached the Ukraine issue at the G20 where on a whole host of issues—from territorial sovereignty and UN charter to the threat of use of nuclear weapons—Russia was targeted without being named. For Moscow, there is greater comfort in the embrace of China, making this one of the most significant challenges facing India.
China loomed large through the entire G20 process where its obstructionist tendencies were on full display, but India too showcased its ability to work with other like-minded nations to push back against Beijing. The threat of being viewed as a ‘spoiler’ by a large part of the world, and particularly by the Global South, finally brought China to the table. But the absence of Xi Jinping highlighted how the China-India dichotomy is fast emerging as a major fault-line in its own right on global platforms.
The old optimism that while bilaterally China and India have difficult ties, they can try to work together at the global level has faded away completely. At the G20, India showed that while Beijing may have greater economic and military muscle, New Delhi can leverage its partnerships in challenging China in multiple ways. It is India’s close ties with the US, Middle Eastern countries and Europe that made the India-Middle East-Europe economic corridor possible.
India’s global outreach to old and new stakeholders from Africa to the Middle East, on ample display at the G20, is the final trend shaping New Delhi’s foreign policy aspirations. This is no old style Third Worldism that some are mistaking it for. This is an intrinsically pragmatic pursuit of clearly defined objectives by building ad hoc coalitions of like-minded actors. A more self confident and self assured India is today charting a new course in global politics. Its success at the G20 summit is less about its role in the multilateral order, and more about how it is trying to pursue its national objectives without the ideological baggage of the past.
The article was first published in Livemint on September 17 , 2023 as The G20 showed India’s foreign policy is exploring new territory.
Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organisation.
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Posted by Harshaa Kawatra, research intern at IMPRI.