India did pull through a spectacular G20 summit, culminating with a joint communique that at one stage did appear to be a rather long shot. In addition, the Biden-Modi summit was a significant statement on the long and fruitful journey the two countries have decided to pursue together. The dust has now settled, the euphoria has dissipated, and a reality check is in order of our handling of the G20 summit while occupying its Presidency. Was it a moment of consolidation of India positioning itself on the global political platform? In addition, did the bilateral between Modi and the US President prove to be a watershed moment? The article provides a clinical analysis.
The Current Volatile Global Geo-political and Security Environment
The current global geo-political and security environment necessitates cooperation, competition, and confrontation (increasingly, conflicts), both bilaterally and multi-laterally between nations. It is becoming true even for intra-state relations. The scope and spectrum of confrontation have widened substantially, encompassing multi-domain arenas, including non-kinetic/cognitive fields like economic, psychological, legal and informational.
The environmental dynamics are impacted by non-state actors, multi-national companies, groups and even powerful and wealthy individuals (like Beta, X, Google, Microsoft, Elon Musk, Murdoch, etc.). Reaching a consensus on various global issues has become extremely difficult, if not impossible. It is under these uncompromising circumstances that India hosted the G20 Summit in September 2023, where different power centres were aligned at opposite ends of the spectrum on many issues like Ukraine, climate change, ideology, asymmetry between the rich and powerful countries (mainly West led by USA) and the global South. Internationally, it has been accepted that given the circumstances, India put up a spectacular show and pulled off a miracle of unanimity in G20, as reflected in the Leaders’ Declaration.
A concurrent summit meeting between US President Joe Biden and Indian PM Modi was also centerstage. Consequently, India has emerged as a world balancer of significant stature and weight. The G20 summit showcased India as the bridge between varying groups of nations, especially between the West and the global South.
Coupled with the Biden-Modi meeting, we can proudly surmise that India has finally reached the high table in managing global affairs. As accolades have poured in, a series of adverse events have also tested our resilience as a secular, democratic nation. Nations and groups undoubtedly drive some of the events with an agenda to stall India’s irreversible march forward. A holistic view of payoffs to India on account of the above events needs to be delved into further.
Buildup to the Summit
India’s moment in the Sun almost got obliterated by President Putin’s expected absence, as well as Xi Jinping’s decision to stay away from the G20 summit with the possible intention of denying India and Modi their moment in the Sun. Instead, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the US figured out how to more effectively counter China on the world stage. Notably, the fact that the global South and Asian nations cooperated signifies their geo-political compulsions to maintain multiple options other than muscular China.
The Pivotal Strategic Payoffs from the G20 Summit
There was considerable doubt whether the world leaders in the Group of 20 meeting could reach an agreement with the Ukraine war being the major divisive issue. On Day 1 of the Summit, the New Delhi Declaration was adopted with “100 per cent consensus on all developmental and geo-political issues” as testimony to India’s leadership. The key was the wording of ‘war in Ukraine’ rather than ‘war against Ukraine’, compared to a more aggressive stance adopted in the Bali Declaration. The Declaration supported a “comprehensive, just, and durable peace” in Ukraine. It advocated conflict resolution through diplomacy and dialogue, emphasising Modi’s famous words, “Today’s era must not be of war”. Even the Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov called the summit statement a diplomatic win for Russia.
The icing on the cake was a promise to deliver more financing to developing nations, to admit Africa to the G20 as a permanent member, and announce a historic and ambitious rail and maritime network straddling India – Middle East – Israel – Europe (IMEC). India, the US, UAE, Saudi Arabia, France, Germany, Italy and the European Union signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to establish IMEC. President Biden hailed it as a “game-changing regional investment”; Israeli PM Netanyahu called it the “largest cooperation project in our history, ” changing the face of the Middle East and Israel and benefiting the entire world.
The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, was one of the pioneers of the initiative, and Ursula von der Leyen, the EU President, called the new economic corridor ‘historic’. Swasti Rao, an associate fellow at the Europe and Eurasia Center at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, stated that “there is little doubt that middle-order powers wish to keep the global economic order multipolar and not fall into the Chinese game of dominating it.”
PM Modi launched the Global Biofuel Alliance during the G20 Summit and invited world leaders to join. The alliance aims to accelerate the energy transition by promoting sustainable biofuels, similar to the International Solar Alliance, and help accelerate global efforts to meet net zero emissions targets by facilitating trade in biofuels derived from sources including plant and animal waste.
A significant achievement was India’s ability to grasp the moment to assert its global leadership role, especially the permanent inclusion of the Global South as a G20 member. PM Modi declared that “history has been created”, while his chief negotiator, Amitabh Kant, called India “the spokesperson of all the Global South.” He added, “It has also demonstrated that India has a huge capacity to bring the world together and lead it in developmental and geopolitical issues.”
India – USA Bilateral Summit
President Biden and PM Modi issued a 30-point joint statement highlighting the multifaceted nature of the India-US strategic partnership. The prologue evaluated the international geo-political-economic situation and noted the importance of “the shared values of freedom, democracy, human rights, inclusion, pluralism, and equal opportunities for all citizens” that are essential for the two countries to prosper, and emphasising “that these values strengthen our relationship.”
- The statement touched on all the critical areas of cooperation, including shared participation in smaller multi-lateral partnerships such as the QUAD, which works “in supporting a free, open, inclusive, and resilient Indo-Pacific.” In June 2023, the US decided to be part of the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative; the US agreed to co-lead the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative Pillar on Trade Connectivity and Maritime Transport. Biden reiterated US support for a reformed UN Security Council with India as a permanent member. Other issues of strategic import to India are enumerated below.
- Technological Cooperation: The statement highlighted Indo-US collaboration in iCET (Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technologies), space, and semi-conductor supply chain. US companies, including Microchip Technology, Inc. and Advanced Micro Devices, have made a substantial investment in India. Others, like Micron, LAM Research, and Applied Materials, are also in talks for collaboration. In the field of telecommunications an MoU between Bharat 6G Alliance and Next G Alliance has been agreed to.
- Space: The joint statement outlined their plans for space cooperation in detail, establishing a working group for commercial space collaboration under the existing India-US Civil Space Joint Working Group. The June 2023 meeting discussed “enhanced commercial collaboration between the U.S. and Indian private sectors in the entire value chain of the space economy and to address export controls and facilitate technology transfer” was discussed.
This meeting enhanced the scope and focus on “modalities, capacity building, and training for mounting a joint effort to the International Space Station in 2024” and “continuing efforts to finalise a strategic framework for human space flight cooperation by the end of 2023.” With US support for India’s participation in asteroid detection and tracking, the intent to increase coordination on planetary defence was announced.
- Nuclear Energy: The importance of nuclear energy as a necessary resource to meet India’s climate, energy transition, and energy security needs was reiterated. Both sides agreed ‘to expand opportunities for facilitating India-US collaboration in nuclear energy, including the development of next-generation small modular reactor technologies in a collaborative mode’.
- Quantum Technology and Biotechnology Collaboration. Both nations also discussed their commitment to work together in the quantum domain, with India’s SN Bose National Centre for Basic Sciences joining the Quantum Economic Development Consortium. They endorsed collaborations in biotechnology, promoted by an Implementation Arrangement between the US NSF (National Science Foundation) and India’s Department of Biotechnology.
- Defence and Aerospace Cooperation: While cooperation has increased manifold recently, both leaders pledged to deepen defence and aerospace cooperation, particularly in new and emerging domains like space and AI. Their specific mention of the commencement of negotiations for a commercial agreement between GE Aerospace and Hindustan Aeronautical Limited (HAL) to manufacture GE F-414 jet engines in India will speed up the process. This capability will be a “big game changer” and form the basis of future indigenous engines that will power Indian military aircraft.
- Economy and Trade: Both lauded the settlement of all outstanding WTO disputes, which will act as a catalyst for better trade relations. An ambitious “Innovation Handshake” agenda under the India-US Commercial Dialogue is in the pipeline to connect start-ups, venture capital firms, and government officials in both countries’ innovation ecosystems.
- Healthcare and Education Collaboration: Collaboration in healthcare, cancer research and care was discussed, with the launch of the India-US Cancer Dialogue and the US-India Health Dialogue shortly. Educational collaborations, such as the establishment of the India-US Global Challenges Institute was formalised.
India ‘was Different’
Compared to other nations’ staid handling of global summits, India has celebrated the G20 Presidency with a vibrance that will echo for a long time to come. India moved to make the G20 process, internally and globally, more inclusive, responsive, and celebratory. For the inclusion of Africa as a permanent member of G20, India consulted and persuaded 125 countries. Within India, spreading the G20 activities across 60 Indian cities brought a wave of fresh economic activity into them. Tourism and hospitality have boomed, infrastructure refurbished, and airports rejuvenated.
The Global South now has a credible voice in international affairs. Coupled with a unanimous G20 Delhi Declaration despite widely disparate views, especially on the Ukraine war, India enhanced and validated her position as a global leader and a credible balancing power. The G20 and Biden-Modi Summit will provide the momentum towards abiding friendships, alliances, and global geo-political stature, as well as significantly enhancing our economic, technological, and military capabilities and capacities to face future geo-political and security challenges. Concurrently, we must stay alert to the vulnerabilities which befall any rising nation.
Lt Gen PR Kumar (Retd)