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India’s worry - after the recent setback, will the G20 summit in September 2023 yield a joint statement at all

In the coming days, efforts to wean India away from its traditional friend Russia will intensify, and New Delhi will face many difficult choices. What needs to be seen is whether it has enough diplomatic guile to ensure that it does not find itself in a difficult spot that haunts it far beyond its short G20 presidency.

By Sanjay Kapoor
New Update

g20 summit 2023 G20 Foreign Ministers Meeting media briefing setting on March 2, 2023 in New Delhi | Photo courtesy: @g20org | Twitter

From the very outset, it was apparent that in a world deeply divided due to the Ukraine-Russia conflict, for the host of the G20 summit 2023, it would be well-nigh impossible to get all the 20 ministers of this elite grouping to come together for even a group photo let alone issue a joint statement. However, the managers tasked to get all the ducks in a row seemed to have grossly miscalculated the differences between the US and its European allies, on the one hand, and Russia and China, on the other. They had hoped that as India had close ties with both the US and Russia, it might be possible for them to get both sides to come together to pen a joint statement - a repetition of the Bali summit last year.

Embarrassingly, nothing like this happened.

At best, what the Indian government managed was the meeting of the members of the Quad countries, Australia, the US and Japan - much to the chagrin of Russia and China - who gleefully stood alongside India and later issued a joint statement.

Instead of buttressing India’s claims as a unifier, the Quad meeting, coming immediately after the acrimonious G20 summit 2023 meeting, may prove to be counterproductive as it was very critical of China and Russia - two countries that are important for the smooth conduct of this summit.

There is speculation in Delhi that this botch-up could have implications for some of those who promised a better outcome. What is worrying for the Indian leadership is that a similar fate or worse may play out when the leaders’ summit takes place later in G20 summit 2023 September. If there is no statement like the one strenuously obtained by the hardworking Indonesian President Joko Widodo at Bali Summit in November 2023, then it would show the Indian PM Narendra Modi, in poor light - a few months before the 2024 elections. In other words, there is plenty that is weighing on the Indian team that is helping put the summit together.

Russians have blamed the US and the Western powers for India’s embarrassment. Its foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, in his combative speech at Raisina Dialogue organised by the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), he blamed the West squarely for creating the crisis in Europe. It was here that he reiterated the fact that G20 had little to do with geopolitics and war but about the world economy. He wondered why Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan had never been discussed in past G20 meetings. He also suggested to his Indian hosts that they have worked hard to bring about peace with China. Was there a hint that its effort may diminish if India does not behave?

The US has stepped in to ensure that India does not buy this Russian narrative. The Quad meeting was hastily organised and issued a statement critical of China and Russia, which has deepened the divide in some ways. Why was the Quad meeting organised at this juncture? However, in the coming months, two members of the Quad are visiting Delhi - first the Australian Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese and later the Japanese PM. The US has also invited Prime Minister Narendra Modi on a state visit to Washington on July 2, months before the leaders’ summit in September.

It’s apparent that the West has been uncomfortable with New Delhi’s attempt at strategic autonomy - equidistance from both sides. The western bloc finds it difficult to explain to their people why they are investing so much diplomatically in India when it continues to support Russia and buys enormous quantities of oil from them. What is not told to them is that bulk of the oil that is purchased by Indians is re-sold as petroleum products like diesel and naphtha to the US and the UK. The Indian consumers do not benefit from low oil prices - as the bulk of the benefits goes to the government and the private refiners.

Portents of a looming diplomatic disaster were available during the crucial meeting of the finance ministers in Bengaluru, which was to take cognisance of the economic slowdown, inflation and cost of living crisis that was staring the world. Though forgotten, the G20 was meant to provide collective action to prevent the horrors of the economic meltdown that took place in 2008-2009 and mostly stayed away from conflicts and regional disputes. Instead, at the Bengaluru meeting, the US and its western allies put the blame for a stressed economy on the doorstep of Russia. Their argument was that the post-pandemic economic recovery faltered due to the invasion by Russia. The French foreign minister, Catherine Collona, again blamed Russia for the consequences every country was facing in the world. The Dutch minister, too, was unsparing when it came to attacking Russia.

The pianist foreign minister of Japan, Yoshimasa Hayashi, went so far as to boycott the Delhi G20 summit 2023 ministerial meet and later showed up for the Quad summit. Australian media reports that their foreign minister, Penny Wong, had tried to help India to reach some common ground due to its growing warmth with China, but the US and some European countries were not keen to relent. Later, at the behest of India, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, met for 10 minutes, but it had no bearing on the outcome of the meeting. Media reports were sketchy, but US Secretary Blinken was concerned by the withdrawal of Russia from the momentous START treaty signed in 2010 during President Obama’s presidency that worked towards the reduction of strategic weapons. Though Moscow had suggested it would return at a later date, manifestly, it had linked it to the conduct of the Western powers towards the Ukraine conflict. There were other issues, too, which both sides had claimed to have been discussed during the 10-minute meeting that included US demand for the immediate withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine.

Some spin doctors of the government have tried to show that the meeting between Blinken and Lavrov was an endeavour of PM Modi. In the coming days, such efforts to wean India away from its traditional friend Russia will intensify. New Delhi will be facing a plethora of difficult choices. What needs to be seen is whether it has enough diplomatic guile to ensure that it does not find itself in a difficult spot that haunts it far beyond its short G20 presidency.


Sanjay Kapoor is a Senior Journalist based out of Delhi. He is a foreign policy specialist focused on India, its neighbourhood and West Asia. He is the Founder and Editor of Hardnews Magazine. He is a Member of the Editors Guild of India (EGI) and, until recently, served as the General Secretary of EGI.