September is a hectic month in India’s diplomatic calendar. On September 5-6 in New Delhi, a ‘Senior Officers Meeting’ was held of the Quad, which comprises India, Australia, Japan, and the U.S. On September 8, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and their Japanese counterparts held the second India-Japan ‘2+2’ Foreign and Defence Ministerial Meeting in Tokyo to take forward strategic cooperation in areas such as joint exercises, defence manufacturing and emerging technologies.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to attend the meeting of the Council of Heads of State of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Samarkand in Uzbekistan on September 15-16. This will be the first in-person summit of the SCO since the COVID-19 pandemic. This visit will be watched closely by the West and by India’s Quad partners for India’s engagement with Russian President Vladimir Putin, as the Russian war in Ukraine has completed more than six months. This will also be the first time that Mr. Modi will be meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping face to face, since the transgressions of the People’s Liberation Army at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) began in April 2020. The Indian government has said India and China will take up remaining issues along the LAC when the disengagement at Patrolling Point 15 in Gogra-Hot Springs is completed; therefore, any contact with the Chinese leader will be significant. India will be assuming rotational presidency of the SCO at the end of the Samarkand summit and will hold it for a year until September 2023. It will host the SCO summit next year.
It will also preside as President of the United Nations Security Council for December 2022.
Presidency of G20
But before that, in November, the 17th G20 Heads of State and Government Summit will take place in Bali. After Indonesia, India will assume the presidency of the G20 from December 1, 2022 to November 30, 2023. It is slated to host several ministerial meetings, working groups, and events before the G20 Head of State summit next year.
By hosting the summit of the G20, the world’s most influential economic multilateral forum, India will have the opportunity to assume centre stage in proposing and setting the global agenda and discourse. The G20 holds a strategic role in securing global economic growth and prosperity. Together, its members represent more than 80% of the world’s GDP, 75% of international trade and 60% of the world’s population. It will arguably be the most high-profile event ever hosted by India. The country’s leadership potential and diplomatic foresight in organising such a big-ticket event and in arriving at meaningful outcomes will be tested.
In a world affected by the pandemic and the Ukraine conflict, the rise of an assertive China, economic challenges such as stagflation, terrorism, and climate change, to name a few, it needs to be seen what role India can play under its watch as President of the G20. To begin with, India can take cues from Indonesia’s presidency and observe how it is managing the group which is deeply divided on various issues. Indonesia has focused on three key pillars: global health architecture, sustainable energy transition, and digital transformation. This template could be useful for India in forging a comprehensive agenda.
India can assert its political, economic and intellectual leadership while hosting the G20 presidency. But it will have to perform a delicate balancing act. On the one hand, we have the West, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and G7 partner nations setting the agenda. And on the other, we have an emerging nexus between China and Russia, which are taking divergent views from the first group. India might be caught in the middle as it is part of both the Quad and the SCO which somewhat lie on the opposing sides of the geopolitical spectrum. So, India might have to address issues that help in bridging the emerging divide in the world order.
Notwithstanding the noise and opposing views at this forum, India can find a common ground for setting its G20 agenda by addressing issues of global concern. Simultaneously, it needs to promote its specific priorities related to domestic and regional issues such as economic recovery, trade and investment, unemployment, patent waivers on diagnostics, therapeutics, vaccines to tackle COVID-19 and terrorism. More specifically, India could forge greater cooperation with many G20 members such as the European Union, the U.K., and Canada, thereby accelerating their coordination on realising free trade agreements. The overarching issues could be related to charting a road map for quick global economic recovery, focusing on the supply chain resilience mechanism and stressing on green and digital transformations in the economy and its impact on societal well-being. This would ensure a sustainable and inclusive growth for the global economy.
G20 is a unique global institution, where developed and developing countries have equal stature. It offers India an opportunity to also champion the causes of developing and least developed countries so as to ensure that this summit does not turn out to be a western-dominated high table gathering or one where large economies impose their aspirations on the world. India could invite and engage countries from Africa and South America to ensure better and more balanced representation at the G20. Areas such as technology transfer, assistance towards green economy, greater access to trade for developing countries, addressing debt distress of countries by offering sustainable aid and loan programmes, tackling food and energy prices/security for vulnerable economies etc. could be relevant. As Harsh V. Shringla, India’s chief G20 coordinator and former Foreign Secretary, recently said, “Our G20 Presidency would place India on the global stage, and provide an opportunity for India to place its priorities and narratives on the global agenda.”
A testing time
The coming months will be a testing time for Indian foreign policy and diplomacy as the country prepares to host the G20 and SCO summits next year. India will be central in outlining key priority areas and in ensuring that the forum does not remain just a ‘talk shop’ but translates into a ‘walk shop’ in terms of meaningful actions and outcomes. Only this will give credibility to India’s pivotal role in the international community.
On its 75th year of independence, India could start charting a meaningful agenda and contribute towards the international community. Its role towards either brokering or breaking deals could define the coming years and decades of global discourse and avenues of cooperation.
Rajesh Mehta is a leading international affairs expert and Mohit Anand is Professor of International Business and Strategy at EMLYON Business School, France