India has managed to steer the G-20 in a way that establishes New Delhi’s credentials as a platform where even bitter rivals can participate. Within the SCO, India is resisting efforts to get the organisation to take sides in the ongoing Cold War 2.0., writes Prof. Madhav Das Nalapat
When India took over the year-long rotating Presidency of the G-20 last November from Indonesia, the global faultlines typified in the Russia-Ukraine conflict since 24 February 2022 were visibly expanding. Given that the G-20 included both sides involved in the conflict, the Sino-Russian alliance as well as the G-7, it was apparent that tensions within the larger group would escalate as 2023 progressed. Rather than follow the conventional route and give the rotating presidency little domestic importance and despite the challenges that would come up during that period, Prime Minister Narendra Modi took the decision to showcase India’s presidency to the people of India.
In that way, two messages were conveyed, the first being that India was clearly at the Top Table so far as the international order was concerned. Till recently, it had been the UN Security Council that had been considered as the world order’s apex body, but the reluctance of the PRC to admit as a Permanent UNSC Member the world’s most populous country (and what will soon be its third largest economy) has ensured that the premium that the UNSC once enjoyed in the public mind had dimmed into insignificance.
The permanent veto-wielding membership of just 5 countries in the UNSC now functions as a divided house. While there were illusions about getting China to join hands with the G-7 where pressure on Russia was concerned were high among its members throughout the past year, such optimism has been shown to be unrealistic.
CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping seeks to substantially expand the SCO and BRICS so as to include not just anti-western countries but countries that are veering away from support to the US and its allies, such as seems the situation with Saudi Arabia. The purpose is to create not just an alternative but an opposition to what the CCP considers a western-dominated global order. When Xi talks of multipolarity, what he means in practice is the replacement of the fading unipolarity of the US with that of China. Similarly, to Xi, a BRICS currency swap agreement means not the use of the South African rand, the Brazilian real and the Indian rupee, but the replacement of the US dollar with the RMB in intra-bloc trade.
Through the prominence given in 2023 to the G-20 within India,the other lesson that the Prime Minister intended to convey to the 1.4 billion people of the country was that international peace, stability and progress were not possible in the absence of coordinated efforts at protecting them. And that in the task of ensuring the three objectives of stability, peace and progress, India has a keystone role.
Across India, the holding of G-20 events and the dissemination of information about the group has better opened the gaze of people in India to the world, and so far as the G-20 is concerned, opened multiple corners of India to what is arguably the most consequential multilateral organisation at present. Under the Modi Presidency, the orbit of the G-20 has been lifted to a much higher trajectory in terms of global significance than was the case earlier. When President Lulaof Brazil takes over the rotating presidency from Prime Minister Modi later this year, it will be a G-20 on a much higher trajectory than was the case just a year earlier.
It is certain that Brazil will emerge as a worthy successor to India, so that the higher trajectory gets maintained during its presidency and hopefully afterwards. Assisted by External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, Prime Minister Modi is successfully navigating through the rocky shoals and choppy waters of changing international relationships, including those that have been exacerbated by the Russia-Ukraine war.
While continuing to be a customer of Russian products such as oil, India has continued on the path of deepening security and defence cooperation with the US, Japan and other like-minded countries. Rather than get lost in a welter of conflicting objectives in the way that NATO has done since almost the start of the 21st century, India has remained focused on its key priorities, which include the Global South, food security and the defence of the Indo-Pacific against expansionist powers seeking to wrest land, air and sea space from other countries.
In the task of expansion of space at the expense of other countries, apart from the US itself, the biggest challenge CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping is facing is from India. In Galwan in early 2020, the Indian Army showed that man-to-man, its soldiers are more than a match for their PLA counterparts. India has an inexhaustible reservoir of young people, of whom potentially tens of millions can be trained to deploy as a deadly force in situations of kinetic combat.
Prime Minister Modi through Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, is ensuring just such an expansion of speedily deployable additional man (and woman) power in the uniformed services, including through the Agnipath program. This is in the process of being tweaked so as to make it better able to fulfill the objectives for which it was set up. As have the newly created tri-service theatre commands, another long needed innovation. The Indian armed forces are well on the way to becoming the most capable in the world, including in the essential task of helping protect the Indo-Pacific against predatory powers.
In a way that countries across both sides of the Atlantic failed to do during the 1930s, making a kinetic global conflagration inevitable, the process of building up a coalition capable of deterring the country that is the world’s biggest security challenge in the 21st century needs to succeed. That progress is being made in such a task is clear from the reinvigoration of the Quad by Shinzo Abe and Narendra Modi in 2017, and in the deepening collaboration kinetic and otherwise between like-minded Indo-Pacific countries threatened by expansionist powers, such as India with Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia.
India took over the G-20 and SCO in a year that has been unusually problematic in many ways, and yet has managed to steer the G-20 in a way that establishes New Delhi’s credentials as a platform where even bitter rivals can participate. Within the BRICS, India is resisting efforts to get the organisation to take sides in the ongoing Cold War 2.0 that is taking place, a task in which it is being joined by Brazil and South Africa, neither of which wants the BRICS to become an entity controlled by a bloc that is opposed to another bloc. As for SCO, mindless expansion would destroy its coherence, and needs to be avoided despite pressure from one of its members. Choppy waters, rough seas. Piloting safely in such geopolitical seas is being carried out with energy and efficiency during this particularly turbulent year by the current 2023 Chair of G-20 and SCO, India.