EARLIER this month, India hosted, with gaudy fanfare, the 18th meeting of the G20. The outcome was an 83-paragraph declaration, which called for green development and inclusive growth, but broke no new ground. The declaration deplored the aggression against Ukraine but did not name Russia. Ukraine was irritated.
However, it was not the substance but the optics and pomp and show that appeared to have been the host’s top priority. India used the occasion to build its global stature, project itself as a leader of the Global South, and deepen inroads into the Muslim world.
By hosting the G20 summit, and, earlier, the SCO meetings, and playing an active role in expanding BRICS, India wants to send a message that a country, which is the world’s most populous, with the fifth largest economy and a large democracy (Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindutva policies notwithstanding), should be a permanent member of the UN Security Council, an objective India has pursued for many decades in cooperation with Brazil, Germany and Japan.
This diplomatic extravaganza has, however, not been without its encumbrances. In order to showcase a ‘shining’ India, shanty neighbourhoods were hurriedly erased, displacing thousands of Indians. The initiative to host a preparatory G20 meeting, related to tourism, in occupied Kashmir also backfired as several G20 countries declined to participate due to Kashmir’s disputed status.
Pomp and show was India’s main priority at the G20 summit.
More notably, Xi Jinping chose to stay away from the summit, the first time a Chinese president has done so. This reflects the tensions that still persist between India and China, and the latter’s growing discomfort with forums dominated by the US.
India is struggling to balance its strategic partnership with the US with its cooperation with Russia and China. As for India’s claim to a permanent seat at the UNSC, the opposition of a group of several important countries called ‘Uniting for Consensus’, as well as the African group, is likely to remain the main stumbling block.
The theme India chose for the summit ‘One Earth, One Family, One Future’ seems to have been designed to appeal to the developing world. India also tried to present itself as a voice of the Global South by proposing to invite the African Union to be a permanent G20 member. During the summit, India liaised closely with Brazil, Indonesia and South Africa — some of the leading lights of the Global South.
Interestingly, the most noted outcome of the event was an initiative that was not part of the summit’s agenda or its declaration but a separate MOU signed on the sidelines, outlining a plan to create an India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC). Announcing the initiative, PM Modi was flanked by the US president and Saudi crown prince and other heads of state. The corridor is intended to enhance trade connectivity and economic integration by linking railways, ports, electricity and data networks.
The idea of a possible economic corridor between India and Europe through the Middle East was first floated in 2021 by Spanish scholar Michael Tanchum, who wrote a paper titled India’s Arab-Mediterranean Corridor: A Paradigm Shift in Strategic Connectivity to Europe. Last February, the UAE president is reported to have suggested this concept to the US president. The US lent its full support to the idea to counter-balance China’s Belt & Road Initiative, enable India to make inroads into the Middle East, and facilitate Arab-Israeli normalisation.
Details of the initiative are still unclear. A map floated by the UAE (which erroneously shows the disputed territory of Jammu & Kashmir as part of India) indicates a route from Mumbai to Dubai, then over the Saudi and Jordanian landmass to the Israeli port of Haifa, and then through the Mediterranean Sea to the Greek port of Piraeus. This is a cumbersome multimodal route, easier envisaged than implemented. China has reacted cautiously. It knows that the IMEC can hardly challenge the BRI, which has already connected 155 countries. It is worth recalling that the earlier US-led initiatives of Indo-Pacific Economic Framework and the Build Back Better World had also failed to take off. Turkiye, too, expressed its reservations regarding the IMEC and backed an alternative route connecting the Gulf to Turkiye through Iraq.
India’s attempt to use the G-20 event for self-aggrandizement seems to have run into further problems as Canada has officially called it out for arranging, through its state agents, the murder of a Canadian Sikh inside Canada. It is time India’s leadership recognises there are limits to hubris and it cannot stand tall by indulging in acute discrimination against non-Hindu minorities at home and violating all norms of international law abroad.
The writer is a former foreign secretary.
Published in Dawn, September 24rd, 2023