Opinion

K.C. Singh | Global tensions stymie Indias G-20 leadership

By DECCAN CHRONICLE | K.C. Singh

4 March 2023

The G-20 foreign ministers’ conference, that was held at the Rashtrapati Bhavan Cultural Centre in New Delhi on March 1 and 2, which followed soon after the finance ministers’ meeting in Bengaluru, faced many of the same dilemmas. The Ukraine war has polarised the group with China increasingly in the Russian corner, opposing any condemnatory words about it. India has been walking a diplomatic tightrope between the warring camps ever since the war began a year ago. The task became far tougher as the host of the conference.

The absence of the US secretary of state and the French and Japanese foreign ministers at the dinner the night before the conference opened demonstrated the fissures. Prime Minister Narendra Modi set the tone in his opening address on March 1. The participants, he advised, should draw inspiration from “India’s civilisational ethos” in the land of Buddha and Gandhi. The focus should be “not on what divides us, but on what unites us”. Sensible words that are lost in a world that has ignored his old dictum that “now is not an era of wars”. His words may have carried greater weight if what his government preaches to foreigners does not get undermined by what it practises at home.

The Prime Minister correctly listed some of the global challenges which require immediate attention, from which the big powers are distracted due to the Ukraine war. These range from inflation and low growth, inequitable development, food and energy security, transnational crimes, corruption, terrorism, climate change to the need for economic resilience etc. The “Global South”, the new phrase for the developing world, is agitating over them and they are part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations. He also underscored the failure of multilateralism, the institutional structure of which was created after the Second World War.

He explained that this global architecture had two functions: prevent wars and foster international economic cooperation. He is right as the UN Charter created the UN Security Council to ensure peace and security and the Economic and Social Council to ensure equitable economic growth. Neither has lived up to their mandates. Due to this failure of international governance, India has been advocating UN reform, especially the expansion of the UNSC to reflect contemporary global power distribution.

Mr Modi, however, omitted the third pillar of the post-World War II institutional order. It was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in Paris in December 1948. Its preamble states that a new era was beginning in which “human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want”. The 30 articles of this landmark declaration are reflected in the Fundamental Rights embedded in India’s Constitution, adopted two years later. The G-20 nations need to introspect on this aspect also as many of them have strayed from these ideals.

A question that keeps surfacing is whether India can play the role of peacemaker given its good relations with main protagonists in the Ukraine war. The answer cannot be a definitive yes or no. The peacekeeping role primarily belongs to the UN Security Council. However, when the P-5, or five veto-wielding permanent members, are not only split but some actually at war, the Council gets dysfunctional. The UN General Assembly can pass resolutions condemning the conduct of such P-5 states but has little more than moral strength.

However, when nations perceive their supreme national interests at stake, they are deaf to international entreaties for a peaceful resolution of disputes. India can play a behind-the-scenes role but can hardly lecture Russia or the Nato powers when on Kashmir India’s consistent stand has been that any foreign peace-making advice shall be treated as interference in its internal affairs.

The other issue debated has been why there has been a hardening of positions over the Ukraine war. If last year a “leaders’ statement” issued at Bali could carry paras on the war noting UN resolutions condemning it, why are foreign ministers of Russia and China now rejecting that. A primary factor is the increased friction between the US and China after the shooting down of Chinese balloons drifting above the US mainland. Warnings have emanated from the US, based on intelligence inputs, that China is considering transferring weapons to Russia, which it has so far avoided. This is being treated by Nato as a “red line”, although they are themselves in the process of sending tanks to Ukraine, which are by definition offensive weapons.

The US secretary of state, in his New Delhi press conference, began by recalling the year-old Ukraine conflict. He spun the argument around that economic issues are the primary objective of G-20 by arguing that the Ukraine war has been a major economic disruptor as every nation is “bearing the cost of war” due to higher food and energy prices.

Russia, by dragging its feet over the Black Sea Initiative, to allow Ukraine to export grains, is worsening the global food crisis. He said he spoke briefly with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov to urge Russia to not abandon the arms control treaties, release detainees and end the “war of aggression”. He warned that China will face more stringent sanctions if arms are transferred to Russia.

Therefore, besides the overhang of the Ukraine war, Sino-US tensions also caused a distraction during the G-20 foreign ministers’ meeting. Analysts disagree on what would be the Chinese strategy on Russia going forward. Will it restrict itself to economic and indirect military assistance, fearing retaliation from the West, as it cannot afford trade and financial sanctions due to its huge exposure to international trade. Alternatively, will it cross the Rubicon if it fears that Russian military setbacks will lead to internal political churn in Russia with its close ally President Vladimir Putin replaced or overthrown.

Unfortunately, India has a narrow window of G-20 chairmanship till the Leaders’ Summit in September. A spring offensive is already underway in Ukraine. Both sides will try at least through the summer to militarily alter the front lines to their maximum advantage. The US also has till autumn before its focus shifts to the 2024 presidential election. China and Russia know these time constraints and may hope that a Republican successor, unlike President Joe Biden, may lack the appetite to back Ukraine to the end. Thus, India’s ability to shape the global agenda to reflect the voice and priorities of the Global South may only achieve partial success. But the hoopla over the multiple G-20 events will be milked by the BJP to its maximum advantage domestically.

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