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India at G20 Must Address the Elephant in the Room and No, It Isn't Ukraine!

As G20 Trips On Russia-Ukraine, Chinese govt lending is kept under wraps, creating a debt of unknown proportions.

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It's on all the posters, so the G20 has become almost as familiar as the T20, except that one is entertainment, and the other is dead serious, so much so that your immediate future may depend on it. And under the surface are the tension and umbrage, not to mention that the world is probably getting divided into two camps again.

The G20 was once just another multilateral grouping that did a decent amount of work. Now it’s the centre of intrigue, with hopefully an ability to turn the tide away from catastrophe.

Snapshot
  • The prospect of G20 was originally raised to deal with a global financial crisis in 1999, with Ministers of Finance and Governors of major banks being the focus.

  • But the key problem lies in issues closely linked to the war in Ukraine, which is the breakdown of international cooperation feeding into crises besides rolling back of the hard-fought Sustainable Development Goals.

  • With China clearly the only other holdout, Beijing got called out at Raisina by nearly everyone.

  • A lot of Chinese government lending is kept under wraps, creating a hidden debt of unknown proportions. So G20 objectives need to bring in Beijing.

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G20 Crowd Clout

For India, the G20 Presidency is a huge diplomatic opportunity, and Delhi is using it to the hilt. The G20 comprises 19 countries which together account for about 85 per cent of the world GDP and 75 per cent of trade. That’s a lot. Which is why what it decides to do or not do, is important.

It was originally raised to deal with a global financial crisis in 1999, with Ministers of Finance and Governors of major banks being the focus.

Its agenda has broadened over the years, but is again critical at a time of multiple crises, including a threatening food crisis, energy shortages, severe climate change, the pandemic and the fallout of the Ukraine war. That’s a full plate, and everyone has a fork in hand. No wonder then that this was the largest meeting of the grouping in its history. It was probably also the most contentious. 
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On The Ukraine Issue

It is now more than abundantly clear that the grouping tripped up on Ukraine, and was unable, therefore, to produce a joint document. The agreement failed on only two paragraphs of 24, and as Foreign Minister Jaishankar says, there was agreement on a lot else, all of which are vital to the future of the world.

India was able to insert its priorities including women’s empowerment and growth, and the group seems to have tick-boxed climate change, as well as biodiversity as well as other challenges.

But the key problem lies in issues closely linked to the war in Ukraine, which is the breakdown of international cooperation all of which feeds into these crises besides rolling back of the hard-fought Sustainable Development Goals. This focus was clearly outlined in the Prime Minister’s opening address where he pointed out that in the face of multiple global crises, global governance failed, and it’s the developing countries which are facing the brunt.

The question at the end of the year when the final summit is held is whether the Indian logo – and virtual warning of “one earth, one family, one future" was heeded. From the proceedings at the Foreign Ministers conference, probably not.

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On Ukraine, there is clearly a hardening of positions on the two sides. The two key paragraphs were after all adopted at the 2022 meeting in Bali which essentially ‘deplored in the strongest terms’ the Russian invasion, and demanded complete withdrawal even while reiterating ‘national positions’.

That means a lot of countries didn’t entirely agree, but went along anyway, including China. As Sergei Lavrov noted at Raisina, no G20 declaration said anything about the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, or anywhere else. After all, Bali also noted that security issues are not the ambit of G20.

This time as the Chair’s summary noted Russia and China objected to this paragraph, as well as the later paragraph against nuclear threats or use. If that isn’t hardening of positions, it's hard to see what it is. India, Brazil, and Indonesia among others were able to get those paragraphs through at Bali but failed this time. With China clearly the only other holdout, Beijing got called out at Raisina by nearly everyone. That’s expensive diplomacy.

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The Raisina Outlet & China's Position

The Ministry of External Affairs rather cannily used the Raisina Dialogue not just to gain political mileage which is considerable given the scale of the event but also to state publicly and widely what its position was on various issues without revealing what actually went on behind closed doors. That’s traditional think tank diplomacy, and very useful indeed.

Notably, it also gave a rare opportunity to the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to state the Russian position. Moscow has not been given much space in Delhi's media circles so far and the Embassy has been quiet in the extreme. Lavrov, therefore, used the platform in his customary style, pointing out that NATO countries had steadily eroded earlier agreements and began pushing into Ukraine with military training and financial assistance at least from 2014 onwards. Lavrov also used the occasion to call out for China-India cooperation, pointing out the importance of the RIC( Russia India China) ‘troika’ among others.

Meanwhile, the Chinese media observed that among over 200 speakers, there was no representative from the Chinese mainland and the presence of a Taiwanese scholar who did speak at a session on China. But Global Times quoting an anonymous military expert who had attended earlier Raisina dialogues, observed “India has its own perspective on global affairs in order to show its global status, which does not necessarily follow the US and the West." That’s cautious optimism.
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The Quad Squad & Its Strategic Role in Global Security

Raisina also had a lively debate on Quad, where Secretary Blinken made the point – continually stressed by India – that it was not a security organisation.

The anchor’s point of whether Quad could include defence innovation and critical technologies was therefore fended off, but it was an important question. An Australian think tank has just pointed out a ‘stunning lead’ in research in 37 of 44 critical and emerging technologies across the defense, space, energy, and biotechnology sectors — including the research of advanced aircraft engines, drones, and electric batteries.

That research was funded by the State Department, which also explains why the US was keen on a partnership with India. Meanwhile, the fact that a Quad meeting was held on the sidelines would have infuriated both Russia and China. That's India’s fine balancing act, even as both lamented ‘Indo-Pacific’ strategies. The Joint Statement did bookmark ‘emerging technologies’ though not in the context of defence.

The breadth of issues touched upon does raise some concerns on whether Quad is a talk shop. But the focus could be gleaned from actual activities. From the US and the Indian navy’s side, it’s Maritime Domain awareness. Disaster Planning has been included by Delhi in G20 as well. Then was a Quad counter-terrorism tabletop exercise in Australia, which lead directly to a Working Group on the subject, that is to explore cooperation between and with other partners.

Notably, the Joint statement also had a reference to the Pacific Islands' priorities including ‘maritime security’. That is a direct reference to China’s recent muscular approach in this region, even while the statement also referenced the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). All this is to the good, but Quad is certainly getting wider around the hips.

The entire exercise has to be assessed again through the Ukraine filter. Does the US have the bandwidth to concentrate on the dragging war in Europe with consistent reports of the US inability to uptick its defence production to meet both the Ukraine war and seriously take on Chinese adventurism? The answer is probably a definite no.
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Then there’s the G20’s ‘south’s interest or complete lack of it – in contributing to another possible conflict at a time when it's battling the effects of sanctions on Russia, the breakdown of supply chains, and severe debt. That requires China to weigh in.

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Beijing Needs To Be Factored In To Address Global Crises

Research points out that the Chinese state and its subsidiaries have lent about USD 1.5 trillion in direct loans and trade credits to more than 150 countries, turning China into the world’s largest official creditor, thereby, surpassing the World Bank, the IMF, or all OECD creditor governments combined.

And that is only what is known. A lot of Chinese government lending is kept under wraps, creating a hidden debt of unknown proportions. So G20 objectives need to bring in Beijing. And then there’s the final question of how these impressive meetings and placards help those on the street.

Apart from the fact that G20 policies will probably decide how much you pay for your bread, there is one immediate danger. The Indian Meterological Office has predicted searing heat with severe heat waves that could not just cause deaths, and more disease, but also a further drop in wheat production which fell last year due to extreme heat at a time of an existing food crisis.
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Climate change again requires all these countries particularly China to cooperate. The Ukraine war has meanwhile led to a lowering of climate commitments. So the bottom line. Your electricity bill depends on whether the global south can persuade the feisty north that a looming crisis is more important than their third-time war in Europe. The cherry on top of India’s presidency should be just that; a standstill agreement and beginning of negotiations however shaky. Start talking.

(Dr Tara Kartha is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS). She tweets @kartha_tara. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Diplomacy   India-China   Russia-Ukraine 

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