(The article was originally published by Indian Express on November 19, 2022 as a part of Dr Madhav’s bi-weekly column titled ‘Ram Rajya’. Views expressed are personal.)
The global economic recession of 2008 had catapulted the otherwise obscure grouping of finance ministers of influential countries into a summit level gathering of G20 nations. In the last 14 years, economy and development was the primary preoccupation of G20 summits.
The summit at Bali earlier this week was also meant to be so. But the long shadow of the Ukraine war fell on it. Though security issues were not supposed to be discussed at these summits, Ukraine kept entering the discussions in different ways — food security, supply-chain disruption, economic downturn and the threat to peace. In the end, all the countries had their say in the matter.
The Americans were happy that they managed to push a strong statement on the war, sufficient enough to hog global headlines. Since a direct condemnation was not possible, the G20 statement took the UN resolution route. The long 52-paragraph statement began with a reference to the UNGA resolution adopted by a majority vote in March this year, which “deplores in the strongest terms the aggression by the Russian Federation against Ukraine and demands its complete and unconditional withdrawal from the territory of Ukraine”. The Chinese were unhappy that “some Western countries led by the US” tried to hype the topic, which was “irrelevant to the economic cooperation at the G20 summit”. Global Times, the Communist Party of China mouthpiece, fumed that they were using “a geopolitical crisis to further sabotage the unity of the international community”.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi referred to the Ukraine crisis primarily in the context of the supply-chain disruptions it was causing and the impact that had on the poor. He pointed out that with global supply chains in ruins, a crisis of essential goods was brewing all over the world. “The challenge for the poor citizens of every country is more severe. Everyday life was already a struggle for them. They do not have the financial capacity to deal with the double whammy,” he warned. His statement that “today’s fertiliser shortage is tomorrow’s food crisis” became one of the quotable quotes of the summit.
Although the final statement talked about issues like future pandemics, digital currencies, new technologies and even cultural issues, Ukraine and China became the show-stealers.
After over a thousand days of virtual appearances, President Xi Jinping surfaced in person at Bali, more confident and more powerful after winning a third term as president. Incidentally, US President Joe Biden too exuded enormous confidence after the mid-term results gave his party continued control over the US senate. “I am coming in stronger,” he exuberantly declared before his meeting with Xi.
The three-hour-long meeting between Biden and Xi was the most important bilateral at Bali. The unusually long meeting and the conspicuous absence of fireworks from both sides indicated that the two countries could be warming up to each other.
A thaw between the two countries is crucial for avoiding the next conflict, possibly in the Taiwan Straits. Biden’s statement after the bilateral that there may not be any immediate conflict pointed to the possible de-escalation of tensions in the South China Sea in the coming months. Although it will be inane to think that Xi would disclose his roadmap on Taiwan to the US, one interesting factor appears to be coming into play in the relations between the two leaders.
As President Obama’s deputy, Biden had visited Beijing in 2011 and was hosted by Xi, who was his counterpart then in China. They spent six days together, travelling to various engagements including a visit to Chengdu in the Sichuan province. They developed a cordial relationship during that visit, which appears to be coming in handy a decade later for both leaders to take some baby steps in the right direction.
After months of party intrigue that led to much gossip including his possible house arrest, President Xi came to Bali betraying a different agenda. He looked determined to end the post-pandemic isolation of China in the world. He got into a flurry of bilaterals with leaders of at least eight important countries, including arch-rivals Japan and Australia, prompting some observers to comment that he was trying to shed the “wolf warrior” image of his country’s diplomacy.
Prime Minister Modi had a brief bump in with Xi at the dinner on the first day of the summit. But he carefully avoided any reference to India-China tensions in his comments, and focused on issues like food security, digitisation and healthcare. His articulation in different sessions enhanced India’s stature as the “voice of the Global South”. In a way, Modi tried to set the agenda for the next summit to be hosted by him by emphasising on “peace, harmony and security”.
The G20 presidency was to come to India in 2022, but got shifted to 2023, giving a breather to the Indian leadership from the heat of the Ukraine and Taiwan conflicts. But despite visible bonhomie between Biden and Xi, political developments in their countries indicate that the difficult days are not yet over. The return of Republican control to the US House means that Biden may see cuts being imposed on Ukraine spending. On the other hand, Xi has the unfinished agenda of installing his own government in March next year, until which time he may continue with his Taiwan hardline. That means Modi needs to deploy deft diplomacy into quick action so that the war clouds gathering over the horizon can be dispersed before the agenda for next year’s G20 starts rolling. He has already left his imprint on the Ukraine issue through his advice earlier that it was not the time for war, a line that the Bali declaration too borrowed from him saying “today’s era must not be of war”.
Modi described India as the “holy land of Buddha and Gandhi”, and wanted the next G20 summit in India to be the harbinger of “peace to the world”, a lofty goal befitting the summit’s motto of “One Earth, One Family, One Future”, albeit a daunting one.