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India’s Rising Star: Can Modi Capitalize on the G20 Summit?

As the sun set over the bustling streets of New Delhi, casting an amber hue upon its iconic landmarks, the city of contrasts awakened to a symphony of diplomacy and heightened security this past weekend. In the heart of this vibrant metropolis, officials orchestrated an unparalleled security spectacle, maintaining a vigilant watch over the city during the G20 summit. The grand Bharat Mandapam convention center stood as a beacon where world leaders converged to discuss pressing global problems. Amid this environment of heightened security and declared public holidays, New Delhi’s allure remained undiminished, serving as the setting for a crucial gathering that promises to amplify India’s influence on the international stage.

Under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, New Delhi has evolved into a significant counterweight in Washington’s strategic calculus against China’s rise in the Indo-Pacific. India’s designation as a “major defense partner”—rooted in its historical commitment to the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM)—has empowered it to skillfully navigate the complexities of global diplomacy, transforming the nation into a consequential player on the world stage.

The G20 summit, an annual gathering of the world’s most powerful economies, took on renewed importance as it convened in India earlier this month. This international platform offers middle-income and developing nations a sought-after seat at the decision-making table, ensuring their voices are heard alongside those of established powers. This inclusive ethos, at least in principle, fosters a collaborative approach to addressing urgent global challenges with a greater sense of equity and shared responsibility.

This year, the rotating presidency of the G20 resides with India. In contrast to some of its predecessors, this year’s 37-page summit declaration underscores the necessity of inclusivity, aligning with the official Sanskrit theme of “The World is One Family” (Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam) and a “reinvigorated approach to multilateralism and reform.” Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, India’s foreign minister, also emphasized the significance of this inclusive approach, stating, “Our aim has been to maximize inclusiveness within this G20 forum.”

The unanimous consensus on the declaration demonstrates India’s role in shaping specific themes of the content, reflecting its characteristic diplomatic language, or as some critics would call it, indecisiveness. The declaration adopts a more nuanced approach to confronting aggressive unilateral actions by advocating that states should “refrain from threatening or using force for territorial acquisition,” while recognizing “different views and assessments of the situation.”

This nuanced stance stands in stark contrast to the prior year’s summit in Bali, where the declaration condemned “[Russia’s] aggression against Ukraine” and called for its unconditional withdrawal from Ukrainian territory. Similar patterns of calculated ambiguity can be observed in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), an informal strategic forum comprising Australia, India, Japan, and the United States. In this forum, ambiguous rhetoric is deliberately employed to avoid overt aggression against any state, aligning with India’s commitment to the principles of the NAM.

The G20 summit presents a rich tapestry of both diplomatic opportunities and challenges. On the one hand, the summit emphasizes inclusivity and multilateralism, providing member states with a promising avenue for cultivating more equitable global cooperation. The declaration’s employment of nuanced language further enables diplomatic flexibility, accommodating a variety of perspectives on complicated international issues.

On the other hand, significant challenges remain. The absence of explicit condemnation of Russia and its war in Ukraine presents a potential hurdle in maintaining a unified stance on global security issues. The intricate task of reconciling inclusivity with assertive diplomacy—as evidenced by the deliberate ambiguity in the summit declaration—remains a complex challenge in addressing the multi-faceted dynamics between states.

Despite these challenges, barriers to cooperation between India and the West have not been insurmountable. For example, India’s acquisition of the Russian-made S-400 mobile surface-to-air missile system underscores its ascending global role. When Turkey, a NATO member, acquired the same system from Russia in 2019, it faced sanctions imposed by the Trump administration just a year later. In contrast, when New Delhi approved its purchase back in 2018, the Biden administration opted not to sanction India. This decision likely signifies the recognition of India’s pivotal role as an essential partner in countering Beijing’s influence in what is designated a “priority theater.”

This is but one of several instances that reveal how India’s foreign policy diverges from that of other emerging powers. Under Prime Minister Modi, the nation’s ambitious foreign policy endeavors continue to gain strength, even when challenged by pressing domestic issues such as communal violence, regional conflicts, and pervasive poverty. Failing to confront these internal challenges could conceivably undermine the effectiveness of India’s foreign policy over the long-term.

With its diverse representation and global influence, the G20 summit presents a vital platform to tackle these pressing challenges through a comprehensive and sustainable approach. By directly addressing poverty and prioritizing the well-being of millions, India, the United States, and other member nations can lay the groundwork for a brighter and more sustainable future. It’s not just for their own citizens but for the entire global community. This summit is a pivotal moment for India and the United States, as well as other G20 member states, to reevaluate their global priorities and forge meaningful partnerships for a more equitable and resilient world.