G20: Grand test for Indian diplomacy as American, Chinese and Russian ministers meet in Delhi

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New Delhi

Foreign ministers from the world’s biggest economies have convened in New Delhi, setting the stage for a grand test in Indian diplomacy as it attempts to navigate tensions over Russia’s brutal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

In the second high-level ministerial meeting under India’s Group of 20 (G20) presidency this year, the country’s foreign minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, will meet his American, Chinese and Russian counterparts Thursday, hoping to find enough common ground to deliver a joint statement at the end of the summit.

The world’s largest democracy, with a population of more than 1.3 billion, has been keen to position itself as a leader of emerging and developing nations – often referred to as the global South – at a time when soaring food and energy prices as a result of the war are hammering consumers already grappling with rising costs and inflation.

Those sentiments were front and center during a news conference Wednesday, when India’s foreign secretary Vinay Kwatra told reporters that the foreign ministers should think about the impact, “particularly economic,” the conflict has had globally.

G20 flags in New Delhi on February 28, 2023.

But analysts say India’s attempt to push its agenda has been complicated by the enduring divisions over the war.

Those differences played out in the southern Indian city of Bengaluru last month, when G20 finance chiefs failed to agree on a statement after their meeting. Both Russia and China declined to sign the joint statement, which criticized Moscow’s invasion. That left India to issue a “chair’s summary and outcome document” in which it summed up the two days of talks and acknowledged disagreements.

Analysts say that throughout the war New Delhi has deftly balanced its ties to Russia and the West, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi emerging as a leader who has been courted by all sides.

But as the war enters its second year, and tensions continue to rise, pressure could mount on countries, including India, to take a firmer stand against Russia – putting Modi’s statecraft to the test.

Arguably India’s most celebrated event of the year, the G20 summit has been heavily promoted domestically, with sprawling billboards featuring Modi’s face plastered across the country. Roads have been cleaned and buildings freshly painted ahead of the dignitaries’ visit.

Taking place in the “mother of democracies” under Modi’s leadership, his political allies have been keen to push his international credentials, portraying him as a key player in the global order.

Last year’s G20 leaders’ summit in Bali, Indonesia, issued a joint declaration that echoed what Modi had told Russian President Vladimir Putin weeks earlier on the sidelines of a regional summit in Uzbekistan.

“Today’s era must not be of war,” it said, prompting media and officials in India to claim India had played a vital role in bridging differences between an isolated Russia and the United States and its allies.

A board decorated with flowers welcomes foreign ministers to New Delhi, India, on February 28, 2023.

India, analysts say, prides itself on its ability to balance relations. The country, like China, has refused to condemn Moscow’s brutal assault on Ukraine in various United Nations resolutions. Rather than cutting economic ties with the Kremlin, India has undermined Western sanctions by increasing its purchases of Russian oil, coal and fertilizer.

But unlike China, India has grown closer to the West – particularly the US – despite ties with Russia.

New Delhi’s ties with Moscow date back to the Cold War, and the country remains heavily reliant on the Kremlin for military equipment – a vital link given India’s ongoing tensions with China at its shared Himalayan border.

The US and India have taken steps in recent months to strengthen their defense partnership, as the two sides attempt to counter the rise of an increasingly assertive China.

Daniel Markey, senior adviser, South Asia, for the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), said while India’s leaders “would like to facilitate an end to this conflict that preserves New Delhi’s relations with both Washington and Moscow and ends the disruption of the global economy,” India did not have “any particular leverage” with Russia or Ukraine that would make a settlement likely.

“I believe that other world leaders are equally interested in playing a peace-making diplomatic role. So when and if Putin wishes to come to the table to negotiate, he will have no shortage of diplomats hoping to help,” he said.

Still, as Putin’s aggression continues to throw the global economy into chaos, India has signaled an intention to raise the many concerns faced by the global South, including climate challenges and food and energy security, according to its foreign secretary Kwatra.

“The G20 in particular, needs to come together to focus on these priorities,” he said.

While Modi’s government appears keen to prioritize domestic challenges, experts say these issues could be sidelined by the tensions between the US, Russia and China, which have increased recently over concerns from Washington that Beijing is considering sending lethal aid to the Kremlin’s struggling war effort.

Speaking to reporters last week, Ramin Toloui, the US assistant secretary of state for economic and business affairs, said while Secretary of State Antony Blinken would highlight its efforts to address food and energy security issues, he would also “underscore the damage that Russia’s war of aggression has caused.”

Blinken will “encourage all G20 partners to redouble their calls for a just, peaceful, and lasting end to the Kremlin’s war consistent with UN Charter principles,” Toloui said.

At the same time, Russia in a statement Wednesday accused the US and the European Union of “terrorism,” stating it was “set to clearly state Russia’s assessments” of the current food and energy crisis.

“We will draw attention to the destructive barriers that the West is multiplying exponentially to block the export of goods that are of critical importance to the global economy, including energy sources and agricultural products,” Russia said, hinting at the difficulties New Delhi might face during the meeting.

India has “worked very hard not to be boxed into one side or the other,” Markey said. The country could not “afford to alienate Russia or the US and Modi doesn’t want discussion of the war to force any difficult decisions or to distract from other issues, like green, sustainable economic development,” he added.

But with plummeting ties between Washington and Beijing after the US military shot down what it says was a Chinese spy balloon that flew over American territory, New Delhi will have to carefully drive difficult negotiations between conflicting viewpoints.

China maintains the balloon, which US forces downed in February, was a civilian research aircraft accidentally blown off course, and the fallout led Blinken to postpone a planned visit to Beijing.

As differences are likely to play out during the ministerial meeting Thursday, analysts said India might see even limited progress as a win.

“Any joint declaration would probably be portrayed in the Indian media as a diplomatic accomplishment,” Markey said. “But its wider significance would be limited.”

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