India must navigate a world in churn at G20 - Hindustan Times
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India must navigate a world in churn at G20

Dec 28, 2022 01:59 PM IST

New Delhi’s refocus on the Global South is consistent with its foreign policy tradition, and it will use the G20 as an entrepreneur of ideas that it hopes will find global circulation and shape the emerging international order.

As India assumes the G20 presidency, Delhi’s wariness of international power politics is becoming clear. It has framed the Ukraine war as a problem of the West. And when this framing is coupled with its responses to China’s belligerence across Asia, including in Ladakh and Tawang, what appears increasingly plausible is that it views the tensions and conflict among the Great Powers over territory and visions of the world order as issues of the upper parts of the northern hemisphere — the Geopolitical North if you will. In contrast, Delhi is set to focus on a Global South agenda, where non-geopolitical but no less important issues of sustainability and governance dominate. However, since geopolitics will centrally determine the effectiveness of India’s G20 strivings, the equations in that domain are worth bearing in mind.

New ideas such as LiFE and India as a ‘mother of democracy’ will be pushed alongside a partial redefinition of Indian civilisation and a renewed emphasis on reforming global multilateralism (ANI) PREMIUM
New ideas such as LiFE and India as a ‘mother of democracy’ will be pushed alongside a partial redefinition of Indian civilisation and a renewed emphasis on reforming global multilateralism (ANI)

First, there is convergence among the two Great Powers over the need to stabilise the global geopolitical scene. The long, and first in-person, meeting at Bali last month between Xi Jinping and Joe Biden as national leaders was most consequential. Both met each other from a place of strength — Xi after securing his extension and Biden after leading the Democrats to a much better performance in the mid-term elections than was expected. This reduced their incentive to adopt aggressive postures vis-à-vis each other to send signals of resolve to their domestic constituencies. The reiteration of American commitment to the One China policy lessened Beijing’s agitation after Biden’s assertive remarks over Taiwan in Japan and Nancy Pelosi’s visit to that country in the preceding months. On its part, Beijing agreed that the threat of nuclear weapons — as Russia has done during its war on Ukraine — was not on.

The American clarification that it seeks vigorous competition but not conflict with China was sensible signalling. The overall slant of US policy is to chip away at China’s relative economic strength and thereby undercut the possibility that Beijing will move from geopolitical assertiveness to military aggression. It is a long game, which the Chinese play too, and how well they will adapt remains to be seen. But China’s international behaviour over the past four decades shows that, unlike Russia, it doesn’t behave recklessly on top-tier issues. Against this background, what is reasonably certain is that the two Great Powers do not wish an expansion of the armed conflict in Europe into a global conflict with a second theatre in Asia.

Second, there are early but unmistakable signs that diplomacy will have a greater role in the Ukraine war in 2023. In recent weeks, the US has nudged Ukraine to consider talks with Russia. This has led to a shift in President Volodymyr Zelensky’s public stance, which had hardened against talks after Moscow declared an illegal annexation of Ukrainian territory in September. America funds and supports Ukrainian resistance and so Kyiv’s leverage is extremely limited, but neither the Europeans nor the US would agree to an equilibrium that leaves Ukraine and the West exposed to future Russian adventurism. Vladimir Putin has also made similar statements in the past two weeks, signalling some openness to talks. A ceasefire can be a start.

At Bali, French President Emmanuel Macron said he was “convinced” China could be an effective mediator. This is a sensible and potentially effective move. Macron has favoured negotiations from before the invasion but has appeared to realise that as a party that supports Ukrainian resistance, the West may not be acceptable to Moscow as a credible mediator. Putin has framed his actions in Ukraine in terms of Russia’s reply to an imperialist West that has caused much injustice to the rest of the world. A transcontinental country, Russia thinks of itself as a civilisational world. Pragmatism suggests that mediators outside the West who have similar self-images and leverage with Putin could help him sell a positive story at home as he scales down. There are only three contenders: China, India, Turkey. Turkey has been involved from the start of the conflict. India should be willing. But China is the real heavyweight here.

Third, his self-positioning as a bulwark of the non-West notwithstanding, Putin’s international isolation is as clear and complete as can be. The displeasure of his closest partners was already evident in Samarkand in September. He skipped the Bali Summit while his foreign minister’s unease there was palpable. The Bali Declaration invoked the United Nations General Assembly’s March resolution that condemned Russian aggression and noted that “most members strongly condemned the war in Ukraine”, and the global crisis of resources and cost of living that has followed in its wake. This should have a sobering effect on those who steadfastly hold onto the narrative of the original sin (that it was the fault of the US or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and take a limited view (that the war is Europe’s problem) even as the war has changed a great deal in most of the world. The worsening humanitarian situation in Ukraine should matter to Delhi. Following the pattern in Grozny and Aleppo, Russian fire is reducing Ukrainian cities to rubble and has forced millions, according to the World Health Organization, to face a life-threatening winter. Though Delhi has spoken out on the humanitarian costs of the war, its effective silence on this suffering sits uneasily with India’s self-image as a humane power.

New Delhi’s refocus on the Global South is consistent with its foreign policy tradition, and it will use the G20 as an entrepreneur of ideas that it hopes will find global circulation and shape the emerging international order. Here, new ideas such as LiFE and India as a “mother of democracy” will be pushed alongside a partial redefinition of Indian civilisation and a renewed emphasis on reforming global multilateralism. That the Buddha and Mahatma Gandhi have been invoked to identify India with the commitment to peace and endorsement of the morality of resistance is to be welcomed. New Delhi will hope for geopolitical stability and a drawdown of the Ukraine conflict so that it can push on unhindered with what it claims is India’s responsibility of enhancing the knowledge of the world.

Atul Mishra teaches international relations at Shiv Nadar Institution of EminenceThe views expressed are personal

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