NEW DELHI — With the foreign ministers of the Group of 20 leading economies meeting Thursday in New Delhi, host India is promoting itself as a rising superpower while leveraging its position on the global stage to bridge the gap between the West and Russia.
Experts expect India to be at the center of bitter global divisions, particularly over Russia’s war in Ukraine. But it’s also an opportunity for the South Asian nation to position itself as the voice of the Global South and as a potential mediator between the West and Moscow.
India is expected to adopt a neutral stance on Ukraine, as it has in the past. The event is likely to be overshadowed by the war in Europe and its impact on global energy and food security. However, senior foreign ministry officials said Wednesday that India was determined to focus on “equally important” issues of rising inflation, debt stress, health, climate change and food and energy security in developing nations.
“I really do believe that India stands the best chance of all countries to try to hold peace negotiations between Russia and not just the U.S., but the West, actually,” said Derek Grossman, an analyst focused on the Indo-Pacific at the RAND Corporation.
He credited India’s non-alignment and its rise as a global power for why it could be a potential peacemaker.
But the South Asian country has its own challenges, particularly with regional rival China. Tensions between New Delhi and Beijing remain high after a deadly border clash in 2020.
On Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said the country’s foreign minister would be attending the G-20 meeting, and that “China attaches great importance with India.” She added maintaining good ties between the two countries is fundamental to their interests.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and India’s Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar “have done a good job of steering this middle path in very turbulent times,” Grossman said.
“You now have American, Russian and even Chinese diplomats supporting India. The country really is at the geopolitical crossroads of everything now that involves the Global South,” he added.
So far, India has refrained from directly criticizing Russia. The two have been allies since the cold war era and New Delhi depends on Moscow for nearly 60% of its defense equipment. India has increasingly scooped up Russian oil since the invasion a year ago, initially facing scrutiny from the U.S. and other allies over its growing purchases. That pressure has since waned and India has continued to abstain from voting in U.N. resolutions that condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“It may appear unfathomable to many in the West that the reaction of the world’s largest democracy to such a cold-blooded, egregious aggression would be so subdued. But for anyone who understands India’s foreign policy, it’s not surprising at all,” said Michael Kugelman, director of the Wilson Center’s South Asia Institute.
“New Delhi has a special relationship with Moscow, and it’s not about to jeopardize it by turning on a longstanding partner,” he said.
Thursday’s meeting will nonetheless be challenging for India, especially after it was forced to issue a compromised chair’s summary at the conclusion of the G-20 finance ministers meeting last week. Russia and China objected to a joint communique that retained language on the war in Ukraine drawn directly from last year’s G-20 leaders summit declaration in Indonesia.
India has said that it stands by the Bali declaration in which major world powers strongly condemned the war in Ukraine, warning that the conflict was intensifying fragilities in the world’s economy.
Grossman said it was concerning that the final statement issued in Bengaluru last week was watered down from the Bali declaration at the insistence of China and Russia. He said New Delhi allowing that to happen was worrisome, but India’s “awkward predicament” to ensure a successful G-20 with everyone there, including Russia and China, meant the country has to make “compromises.”
“I think that’s what India is trying to do now,” he said.
The summits are particularly important for Modi and his ruling party ahead of the 2024 general elections. A strong show during India’s year as G-20 president will allow Modi’s party to signal its diplomatic reach and project power both at home and abroad.
Kugelman said the summit, due later this year, will advance important domestic political goals for New Delhi, and Modi’s ultimate goal would be to “successfully manage the myriad geopolitical rivalries within the G-20, signal that India can rise above intense great power competition and seemingly intractable issues like the Ukraine war, and guide the prestigious club toward tangible achievements.”
“In effect, Modi wants its G-20 presidency to yield meaningful achievements. That’s a tall order, for sure, but it’s important for New Delhi’s foreign policy and domestic political goals alike,” he said.
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