When Narendra Modi addressed the G20’s foreign ministers at a gathering in Delhi earlier this year, he urged the world’s top diplomats to “rise above” their countries’ differences and “build consensus”. Citing India’s chosen theme of “One Earth, One Family, One Future”, he called upon member states to work together to “achieve common and concrete objectives”.
That meeting, like every other ministerial meeting of India’s G20 so far, ended without a joint statement. Now, with prime ministers and presidents descending on New Delhi for this weekend’s leaders’ summit, India faces the very real prospect of presiding over the first G20 ever to fail to agree a leaders’ communique.
Analysts say India has faced a seemingly insurmountable task in bridging the gap between Western nations on one side and allies Russia and China on the other, with their differences over the Ukraine war having only widened throughout the year since India assumed the G20 presidency.
Nonetheless, the Indian government has invested a huge amount of time and money in presenting this G20 as the moment when the country takes on a leadership role on the world stage, with Modi himself as the “Vishwaguru” or global teacher providing a voice for the whole developing world.
Preparations for Delhi to host the high-stakes summit on 9 and 10 September are in their final stages, with a beautification drive targeting unsightly open rubbish dumps and webs of hanging electrical wires, street dogs and monkeys temporarily driven out of the city centre, and new walls erected to obscure the view of slums and congested neighbourhoods.
A sprawling new convention centre, Bharat Mandapan, has been built in the heart of the national capital at the cost of Rs 27bn (£250m) to host dignitaries and media delegations from across the world.
Behind closed doors, Indian officials are preparing for what will be Modi’s biggest diplomatic challenge yet. India’s foreign minister insisted in a recent interview that the government is still hopeful of agreeing a Delhi Declaration this weekend, with S Jaishankar telling NDTV he was “very confident” that among G20 member states “there will be a shared interest in coming out with a common solution and a common statement about all the key problems in the world” during the summit.
“The world today is in a far more worrisome state than it has been. In such a situation, the G20 president should not just be a neutral country but also one that commands respect. That country is India today,” he said.
The G20 began in 1999 in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis and India says this year’s summit is a huge opportunity at a time when global growth is projected to fall to 3 per cent, while more than 50 countries across the world face debt crises.
Yet, the economic forum is being overshadowed by the geopolitical fallout of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and objections over the wording of joint communiques when it comes to the conflict have impacted all this year’s G20 meetings and working groups so far. Instead of joint statements, India has been issuing a “chairman’s summary” after each event, outlining what was discussed.
If this weekend’s summit only ends in a similar “chairman’s summary” it would be seen as an “embarrassment” for India, says Rand Corporation analyst Derek Grossman – but hardly a surprise.
“It is mostly, if not entirely, a failure of the G20 format rather than India’s failure,” he tells The Independent. “It would be stunning if India succeeds in issuing a joint statement despite all the challenges.
“My sense of it is that India is really trying hard to hash something out, because they know that it would be kind of an embarrassment, although a very predictable embarrassment, to the G20 platform [if they fail],” he says.
The forum has a track record for producing surprising displays of unity in spite of strong undercurrents of global disagreement. Australia’s summit in 2014 managed a joint communique in 2014 shortly after Russia illegally annexed the Crimean Peninsula, a move which was widely condemned by the Western world. That joint statement simply avoided mentioning Crimea, and there was even a “family photo” with all leaders including Putin.
Last year’s summit, under Indonesia’s presidency, remarkably came to an 11th-hour consensus on a joint statement, despite Russia dropping missiles on key Ukrainian infrastructure even as world leaders sat down for dinner. Putin did not attend that gathering, and a carefully-worded Bali Declaration noted that “most members”, but not all, strongly condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
India, which according to the White House played a key role in producing last year’s joint communique, had been hoping to gloss over the Ukraine issue by having members repeat their agreement to the Bali Declaration.
But Russia and China have said that what they signed up to in Indonesia is no longer acceptable because the increased involvement of Western nations in arming and training the Ukrainian military has changed the status quo on the ground.
Modi’s government has had remarkable success in walking a tightrope of non-alignment between historical ally Russia and Western partners like the US and UK, but while this might work for justifying New Delhi’s own increased imports of cheap Russian oil, it is proving a lot trickier to navigate in multilateral forums.
Harsh V Pant, vice-president for studies and foreign policy at the Observer Research Foundation in Delhi, says that while this might be the first G20 summit to end without a joint communique, “going forward one can safely assume that this is going to be the norm rather than the exception”.
“The world is entering into a phase where major power contestation is becoming the norm. So it is safe to assume that the G20 cannot remain immune from that process,” he tells The Independent.
“If China and the West are looking at the world [through] different lenses and this is permeating economic aspects, then it’s fair to assume that that is going to happen. This is, of course, about Russia and the West,” he adds.
Modi will have to lead from the front to make the G20 a success in other ways, Pant suggests.
While many countries’ focus remains on Ukraine, India is staking its G20 legacy on its position as a champion for the global South, saying it wants to be a voice for the aspirations of developing and underdeveloped countries in Asia as well as Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean.
One key agenda point being pushed by India is the inclusion of the African Union as a permanent member of the grouping, similar to the EU’s role now.
It is a test of Modi’s credibility among other leaders as to whether they will go along with India in projecting the summit as a success, with or without a joint statement, if progress can be made on other agenda items, according to Hamdullah Baycar from Exeter University.
“India’s priority is not to have joint discussions on the table at all but rather to present the Delhi Summit as a platform where issues regarding the global South were discussed, most importantly the membership of the African Union,” he says.
“A joint declaration will be a victory for him, while a lack of it will situate him as an ordinary leader, not a problem solver or a leader of the global South.”
Along with changes in the Ukraine conflict, the big difference between this year and Indonesia’s summit in 2022 is the role of China. There are concerns that Beijing would be happy to see the G20 fall flat while it is hosted by its rival Asian giant and one which it has been engaged in an active border conflict with since 2020.
China has now confirmed President Xi will not be travelling to Delhi and that it will instead be represented by prime minister Li Qiang, a downgrading of Beijing’s involvement that Grossman says sends a “worrisome” message. He says China may well find other ways to undermine its rival’s hosting of the summit and thereby its emergence as a leader on the global stage.
Pant echoes these concerns, saying that China may arguably pose a “bigger problem” to the group than Russia given its status as the biggest economic power in the world after the US. “[Beijing] can create more problems [for India]. Or it might just be happy with the fact there is already one problem – the Russia-Ukraine war – that will not allow it to be a grand success.”
Russia confirmed some weeks ago that Putin will also not be attending the summit this weekend, a decision that India might have hoped would allow it to maintain its Ukraine balancing act and move the focus onto other issues.
But Grossman argues India’s position is increasingly becoming “untenable” as the Ukraine war drags on and becomes ever more consequential for the rest of the world.
“If India does not take a stand in a situation when Russia goes Hitleresque across Europe or threatens nuclear war, then history will be very harsh on India for not making the right decision,” he says. “Putting national interest first is OK but values-based judgement matters in geopolitics. I feel like New Delhi is playing with fire.”