Alignment Issues

India’s approach to the Ukraine crisis might doom its G20 show

The meeting of G20 foreign ministers took place in Delhi on 1 and 2 March.
31 March, 2023

The meeting of G20 foreign ministers in Delhi, on 1 and 2 March, was deemed a success for “Brand India.” But it all depends on how we define success. The first three G20 summits, held in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, saw concrete outcomes: policy and institutional initiatives that stabilised the global banking system. This was no longer the case in 2022, with the escalation of the Russia–Ukraine war. At its Bali summit, the G20 merely issued a joint communique, stating that the participating leaders had agreed to disagree on Ukraine—this was seen as an achievement. This year, with India holding the rotating presidency, the foreign ministers could not even agree on a joint statement. India issued a  “Chair’s Summary and Outcome Document,” with a footnote stating that Russia and China did not agree to two paragraphs.

There was no family photograph of the participants. Many foreign ministers timed their arrival to skip the dinner thrown by their host, S Jaishankar, and went on to issue rather trenchant statements about the war. There was more consonance in the meeting, on 3 March, of the foreign ministers of the Quad countries: Australia, India, Japan and the United States. This was accompanied by the Raisina Dialogue, an annual public diplomacy event of the ministry of external affairs run in partnership with the private think tank Observer Research Foundation, between 2 and 4 March. There was much pomp and show around the Raisina event, including hugs, photo-ops, speeches, sound bites and, in general, social-media content for the government officials, ministers, analysts and journalists present. What was noise to the ears of objective observers sounded like music to the supporters of the Modi government.

In all the events, India has been keen to avoid the biggest issue that dominates current geopolitics: Ukraine. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s opening address to the foreign ministers skipped any mention of the war, focussing instead on geoeconomics and the problems of the Global South, such as food and energy security, disaster resilience, financial stability, transnational crime, corruption and terrorism. Stating that this is a time of “deep global divisions,” in which “multilateralism is in crisis,” he appealed to the foreign ministers “to focus not on what divides us, but on what unites us.”

It found no takers, as the G20 was divided among three distinct blocks: the G7 group of developed countries, the Russia–China grouping and a loose cluster of other countries that are friendly with both blocs, including Indonesia, Brazil, South Africa and India. This was evident from the February meeting of G20 finance ministers and central-bank governors, in Bangalore. Modi’s hope of an “ambitious, inclusive, action-oriented” meeting that “will rise above differences” was blown to smithereens. When a meeting of ministers and officials who deal with economic issues failed on geopolitical fault lines, the Modi government would have been quite naïve to expect a meeting of foreign ministers to ignore the current geopolitical turmoil.