India’s Global Moment? The G20 Presidency and Beyond
Despite its emphasis on strategic autonomy, India’s ties with the West have strengthened in recent years. As current G20 president, the country will host world leaders in New Delhi this September. How will India navigate geopolitical tensions both as G20 president and beyond?
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visits to Western capitals have become a recurring spectacle in recent years. Notwithstanding India’s resistance to overtly condemn Russian aggression in Ukraine, Modi’s trips to the United States, Australia, and various European Union (EU) countries between 2022-23 reflect the elevation of India’s strategic partnerships with these countries and their recognition of India’s place on the world stage. India matters for the West for two main reasons: first, in the wider ambit of strategic rivalry with China, its size and scale make it a valuable economic and security partner in the Indo-Pacific. Second, India’s centrality to transnational issues such as climate change and emerging technologies means that it cannot function as a bystander on questions of global governance. This message is reflected by India's G20 presidency this year, where it has stressed the need to reach solutions in a sustainable and inclusive manner. Given India’s growing global pre-eminence, what can we expect from the country as G20 president and beyond?
India’s G20 Presidency
India's G20 presidency has a clear mission: to restore reason amidst geopolitical tensions. It aims at reminding world leaders that disagreement should not overrule the possibility of reaching consensus on transnational issues and development collaboration. The Indian presidency is close to achieving its target of hosting 200 meetings across the country on themes that include environment and climate sustainability, energy transitions, labor and employment, and agriculture. Meanwhile, it is using the G20 platform to showcase India to the world through grand displays of art and cultural heritage. Despite India's efforts as a G20 host, recent political outcomes suggest that it has been unable to escape its geopolitical context– particularly in the light of the War in Ukraine. The foreign ministers’, finance, and climate meetings did not reach a consensus. The Indian presidency has issued nine chair's summaries after G20 meetings, instead of a common communique casting doubt over the possibility of a joint statement at the September summit, akin to the one issued under the Indonesian presidency last year. Should Ukraine be included in the draft statement, there is a strong chance that Russia and China would not agree to it - resulting in the first ever failure of the G20´s ability to issue a joint communique in its history.
The challenges the Indian presidency confronts regarding Ukraine at the G20 are but a symptom of the larger concern India faces vis-à-vis its principle of strategic autonomy. India’s strategic autonomy refers to the country’s pursuit of an independent path in its foreign policy that resists being compelled to take sides in wide-ranging geopolitical contests, especially when doing so compromises its interests. As noted in the 2022 Bertelsmann Transformation Index (BTI) for India however, this does not imply "a general unwillingness to cooperate with multiple partners". Indeed, India has climbed from seven out of a possible ten points in 2006 to nine points in 2022 in the BTI’s credibility ranking, reflecting perceptions of the nation as an "increasingly influential foreign actor".
But over the years, India has mobilized strategic autonomy into a framework of multiple partnerships to prioritize its own interests. Until very recently, it enabled India to engage with Russia and China - as a military partner and economic partner respectively -- while simultaneously strengthening relations with the West. At present, however, the space for India’s pursuit of multiple partnerships may be shrinking. The War in Ukraine means that India will face challenges in its military supplies from Russia. Additionally, India’s delicate balancing act with China has been disrupted by deadly clashes with the latter at the disputed border in 2020. India has responded by issuing technology sanctions on China, reflecting a serious abrasion of their ties.
This suggests that for India, the strategic value of Russia and China are gradually eroding – signaling similarities with Western policy on this front. Although India remains committed to its path of strategic autonomy, it could potentially confront challenges that demand making choices such as: the possible deepening of China-Russia ties; intensification of border tensions or the escalation of China's military might against Taiwan. In such situations, India would be likely to lean West.
National Elections 2024
As Indian foreign policy adapts to a challenging geopolitical landscape, the country goes to vote next year and its foreign policy maneuvers this year must also be interpreted in this context. India's G20 presidency and Modi's meetings with world leaders have a dual aim: to attract global attention while also appealing to the domestic electorate. On various international occasions, the Modi government portrayed India as a 'vishwaguru' or 'world teacher' highlighting its global aspirations. This message is designed to foster a fresh surge of nationalistic pride as India's cultural prowess and civilizational eminence claims the world stage. With the current Bharatiya Janata Party's continued rule since 2014, the party now ranks as India's wealthiest. It is also linked with the erosion of democratic institutions and the undermining of civil liberties - an aspect that is comprehensively explored in the 2022 BTI India report. Should the Modi government come out strong in the next election, the West will find itself facing a complex India: one that champions democracy and diversity globally, but encounters its slow decline and deterioration, locally.
Dr. Sharinee L. Jagtiani writes as guest author of the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s BTI Blog. She is a Post-doctoral Fellow at the Hasso Plattner Institute (HPI) for Digital Engineering, University of Potsdam and an Associate at the Institute for Asian Studies, German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA). She holds a PhD in International Relations from the University of Oxford and has published on Indian foreign policy, Indo-Pacific security, technology policy, and the international relations of the Global South.
Photo by Devansh Bose