India to treat Russian invasion carefully at G20 summit

Narendra Modi will look for a boost to his 2024 election campaign, writes James Orr.

The World Today
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World leaders will meet in New Delhi on September 9-10 as India hosts the G20 leaders’ summit set against a backdrop of a crisis in multilateralism. As Narendra Modi, the Indian prime minister, has shown a growing confidence on the international stage, he will wish to pursue his own agenda.

‘Charged encounters’

Analysts point to a range of issues that disproportionately affect India and the Global South, including climate finance and food insecurity. Other priorities for Modi concern digitalization and a push for more equitable economic growth.

‘This summit will see several firsts and the potential for charged encounters cannot be overstated,’ said Dennis Snower, president of the Global Solutions Initiative, which provides policy advice to the G20. ‘Controversies concerning cybersecurity, trade in sensitive technologies and the decoupling of global value chains are also likely to complicate cooperation.’

Modi has called for an ‘honest conversation’ among leading geopolitical rivals

India took over the G20 presidency from Indonesia in December last year, and Modi, who faces a general election in 2024, opted for Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam – One Earth, One Family, One Future – as the summit’s theme. He has called for an ‘honest conversation’ among leading geopolitical rivals, stressing that ‘climate change, terrorism, and pandemics can be solved not by fighting each other, but only by acting together’.

Despite an annual GDP growth of 6 per cent, India continues to be dogged by social and economic inequalities, meaning Modi will be eager to ensure the summit delivers a political boost to his re-election campaign. He will hope to champion the voice of the Global South, highlighting debt distress among developing countries as well as promoting a more resilient global financial architecture with fairer trade and climate finance deals.

Significantly, alongside German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Modi is also proposing giving full G20 membership to the 55 African Union states, again reflecting India’s willingness to support emerging economies.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy has not been invited to the summit. Meanwhile, India continues to buy cheap Russian oil and coal

‘India wants to have a credible and viable place in the geopolitical architecture,’ said Mohit Anand, a professor of International Business and Strategy at the Emlyon Business School in France. ‘Modi is very careful of his image and the marketing of what he does, and he’ll want to accentuate India’s rise and reach as a leading geopolitical and economic power.

‘In spite of its growth areas, India still faces a lot of vulnerabilities caused by the pandemic and other issues that are the same as the Global South. If India champions the issues facing Asia and Africa then it is also helping itself,’ said Anand.

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On Russia’s war in Ukraine, Modi is likely to be far less vocal, experts claim. India enjoys deep ties to Russia and is mindful of the strength of the relationship. Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the Ukrainian president, has not been invited to the summit despite official requests he attend. Meanwhile, India continues to buy cheap Russian oil and coal, undermining western sanctions but helping Modi overcome inflation worries at home.

In Russia’s orbit

Russia also remains India’s largest weapons supplier, although in March this year the Indian Air Force told a parliamentary committee that Moscow was unable to honour a ‘major delivery’ of arms owing to the Ukraine conflict.

‘India won’t condemn Russia or move away from Russia’s orbit towards the US,’ said Anand. ‘Its orbit might tilt but it won’t change its axis or trajectory. That might take decades. Issues over Ukraine or the China-US trade war might be raised implicitly but not explicitly. There may be backchannel talks but India will tread very carefully.’

This story was updated on September 4, 2023 to take out references of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s expected attendance at the G20.