Three weeks ago, the main (and closing) event of India’s presidency of the G20 group of nations took place in Delhi. What was the outcome?
Currently, the G20 seems divided into three groups. On one side, the Western nations with U.S., Canada and the European countries plus Australia, South Korea and Japan. Then a second group containing China and Russia, at complete odds with the first group. And then a third group -led by India and including Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Indonesia and South Africa- that is trying to play a sort of mediating role between the first two. Interestingly, many of the countries on this middle group are either long-standing members or newly invited candidates to the BRICS group, together with China and Russia.
So obviously the profound (and increasing) geopolitical divide between the first two groups spelled doom for any tangible collaborative effort in this G20 meeting. In fact, both the leaders of China and Russia had already announced their absence. Putin was not necessarily welcome anyways but Xi’s decision not to attend was probably illustrative of what China thought it could accomplish there. In this tough kind of conditions, what could India and its Prime Minister Narendra Modi hope to accomplish, and what did it accomplish?
India’s main achievable goal coming in, I think, was to reinforce the idea of India as a proactive player in the international arena. India has traditionally been perceived -in a way that corresponds a lot with reality- as a country that is mostly looking inwards, minding its own business. A country busy with solving its own poverty problems, with putting the foundations of a potential economic and technological superpower and with finding solutions to its social problems. In other words, India has never been seen as a country that can push an international agenda to address global, or even regional, problems. In that light, the G20 presidency offered a chance for India to develop a global set of issues and alliances that could define its international role in the coming years.
There is actually a very rich set of issues that India can mine to its own advantage. For instance, right now the global arena seems dominated by an “East-West” agenda, one made of trade issues, sanctions, security concerns, technology fights and the stand-off between the U.S. and China. India, instead, as some astute commentators note, could promote a “North-South” agenda that stresses critical issues like poverty, food security, debt, immigration flows and supply chain shocks.
Besides the usual toothless platitudes that find their way to a typical final consensus declaration in a gathering like this (e.g., “promote sustainable growth”), India’s G20 presidency might have gotten three substantial outcomes out of the Delhi event.
The first one, in line with the aforementioned main goal, was the sight of India itself playing the assertive role of a leading country bringing other countries to consensus-based decisions. This is a relative new role for India but one at which a would-be superpower needs to be both comfortable and adept. In this sense, the G20 presidency was great practice. The fact that it happened at a time of heightened geopolitical tensions only made the challenge more difficult and thus the learning deeper. The success of having a consensus declaration -even one with so many wording compromises- amongst countries that are effectively at war with each other is perhaps the clearest indicator of India’s diplomatic competence. We can only hope that India continues and expands on that mediating role in important issues between North and South and between East and West.
The second outcome was the commitment of several countries to develop the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC), a new transnational rail and shipping route connecting India with Greece and the rest of Europe through Saudi Arabia and a few more intermediate countries. Some experts estimate that this route might cut shipping time and costs by close to 40% relative to the existing Suez Canal route, while also providing more security and reduced greenhouse emissions. If successful, the IMEC could become a key driver of enlarged trade from India to Middle East and Europe and back. At the same time, the IMEC could and should compete with the Chinese Belt and Road initiative, making it a very interesting geopolitical tool. There are currently many countries that look at China’s use of its Belt and Road program with concern, mostly what seems to be an increasingly unbalanced trade of loans for political dependency. An alternative trade corridor led by a group of less (at least for now) power-hungry group of countries might look preferable.
The third positive outcome had to do with some progress in rules and institutions related to development funds and debt for countries, especially those concerning Multi-lateral Development Banks (MDBs). Again, the issue of debt access and debt relief has traditionally been seen through the lens of dependency (either to the U.S. through the World Bank or to China through the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). That dependency leads to decisions about concession of funds or debt relief to be driven by the interests of the main lender (i.e., U.S. and China) much more than they should be. Therefore, the increased involvement of India and other countries in the funding and governance of these institutions can only help assuage those concerns and make decisions more neutral and effective.
In summary, India’s time under the big lights seems to have been quite successful, with some commentators equating it to a “Chandrayaan” (i.e., moon landing) moment for Indian diplomacy. With the world desperately looking for alternatives to either American or Chinese power, the timing of that shining moment could not have been more perfect.