By Alan Crawford and Sylvia Westall
Xi Jinping’s decision to stay away from this weekend’s Group of 20 summit may have been intended to deny India its moment. Instead, Prime Minister Narendra Modi — along with the US and Europe — figured out how to more effectively counter China on the world stage.
Fellow G-20 nations hailed India’s success in reaching agreement on a joint communique that remained in doubt just days before world leaders gathered for their most significant annual diplomatic event. Apart from finding consensus on Russia’s war in Ukraine, the most difficult issue, they also elevated the African Union as a full G-20 member and took action on issues like climate change and debt sustainability that are priorities of emerging markets.
The final outcome irked Ukraine, which saw the compromise on war language as weaker than what leaders produced just 10 months ago in Bali, Indonesia. But for the US and its allies, criticism of a communique that on substance was similar to Bali and has little impact on the ground is a small price to pay for giving Modi a win that bolsters India’s status as a rising power capable of blunting China’s global influence.
President Joe Biden led the charge, seeing in India his administration’s best hope of isolating China and Russia — and providing a booster shot to the US—led world order. The result showed that Washington is finally learning the language of the so-called Global South, with India as its principle guide.
“Some commentators are pointing to watered-down language on Russia-Ukraine as a sign of Western ‘climbdown,’” said Milan Vaishnav, director of the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “But there’s another way of looking at it: The West is also invested in making sure India got a win. A lack of consensus would have been a huge disappointment for India.”
If there was a moment that illustrated the summit dynamics, it was Biden’s meeting on Saturday to discuss White House-led efforts to deliver more financing to developing nations.
Along with World Bank President Ajay Banga, the first Indian American to hold the role, Biden was pictured with Modi, Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa — key members of the BRICS grouping, minus China and Russia. That bloc expanded earlier this month, posing a challenge for the Group of Seven advanced economies.
Earlier in the day, US Deputy National Security Advisor Jon Finer swiped at China by referring to those nations as “the three democratic members of the BRICS,” saying they and the US were all committed to the G-20’s success. “And if China is not, that’s unfortunate for everyone,” Finer said. “But much more unfortunate, we believe, for China.”
And the US didn’t stop there. It separately announced a deal with India, the European Union, Saudi Arabia, Israel and other Middle Eastern countries to develop an ambitious rail and maritime network across the region. Biden hailed it as a “game-changing regional investment,” cementing the deal with a three-way handshake that included Modi and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who the US president had cast as a “pariah” ahead of the last election.
That kind of pronouncement is certainly more likely to appeal to Middle East interests than badgering over human rights, even if the project’s time line and funding remains vague. The US denied it was meant to counter China’s growing influence in the Gulf, but a French official acknowledged it was designed to provide competition for Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative, saying that wasn’t a bad thing.
Xi’s move to skip the G-20 summit for the first time since he became president in 2013 marked a shift in behavior from last November, when he cast himself as a statesman with a responsibility to “get along with other countries.” China’s negotiators also risked appearing petty in looking to thwart India’s progress, taking a stand on minor issues like Modi’s use of a Sanskrit phrase and the US’s bid to host the G-20 gathering in 2026. The Global Times, a newspaper affiliated with the Communist Party, called the US “just a copycat” for its Mideast infrastructure plan.
Going into the summit, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak accused China of acting as a brake on progress toward a joint statement. At one point in the deliberations behind closed doors, Beijing raised the issue of access to semiconductors in a discussion of climate action, people familiar with the talks said. That prompted National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan — a leading advocate of US export controls on chips and chip technology to China — to decry “the idea of holding climate hostage” to unrelated issues.
Premier Li Qiang, representing China in Xi’s absence, told leaders that the G-20 “needs unity instead of division, cooperation instead of confrontation,” the official Xinhua News Agency reported. That followed a commentary posted hours earlier by a Chinese think tank affiliated with the country’s top spy agency, which criticized India for having “sabotaged the atmosphere for cooperation” at the G-20 by pushing its own agenda.
But China relented on its opposition to the communique, and India drew praise from all camps for negotiating a compromise. People familiar with the discussions said the breakthrough occurred after India, Indonesia, Brazil and South Africa jointly put forward a proposal on language describing the war.
“This consensus itself shows the cemented role of India as a trustworthy fulcrum of a world bitterly divided on geopolitical issues like the Ukraine war,” said Swasti Rao, an associate fellow at the Europe and Eurasia Center at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses. “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.”
While the final language on Ukraine made some US allies uneasy, supporting the compromise presented a bigger opportunity to align more closely with major democracies in the Global South that ultimately serve as key swing nations when it comes to Russia’s war and other global issues. G-7 leaders publicly praised the outcome, with Sunak insisting that the language adopted was “very strong” and that “Russia is completely isolated.”
‘Just and durable’
For the US, any move that bolsters India and amplifies other democracies in the Global South helps to counter China and Russia’s influence, particularly when it comes to bringing about the G-20’s call for a “comprehensive, just and durable peace” in Ukraine. Back in May at the G-7 summit in Japan, the US and its allies struggled to convince Modi, Lula and Indonesia’s Joko Widodo to side with them on Ukraine, even after President Volodymyr Zelenskiy made a surprise appearance. Zelenskiy wasn’t invited to address India’s G-20.
A senior European Union official said the agreement effectively saved the G-20 as the last global forum bringing together the world’s major powers. Moreover, the official said, it helped bridge the gap between the G-7 and emerging markets, who would now be partners in holding Russia to account if it doesn’t follow through on seeking a just peace in line with UN principles.
Other senior European officials said China shot itself in the foot by staying away from the summit, allowing India to cement its leadership of the Global South and providing the US and Europe a clear path to strengthen ties with emerging markets.
Even Russia, represented by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov after Vladimir Putin stayed home, saw the agreement as a win. Moscow was pleased that BRICS democracies served as interlocutors with the G-7, according to a person familiar with the situation, underscoring China’s status as an outsider looking in.
The US, of course, could yet stumble in its bid to appeal more to the Global South. Ahead of the G-20, Biden skipped a summit in Indonesia hosted by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a move that appeared like a snub to Widodo. The US president sought to do damage control in Delhi, meeting the Indonesian leader briefly and pledging to meet him at the White House in November, when world leaders head to the US for the APEC summit.
More significantly, however, was India’s ability to grasp the moment to assert a global leadership role. Modi declared that “history has been created” while his chief negotiator, Amitabh Kant, called India “the spokesperson of all the Global South.”
“More than anything else, it has amplified the voice of Global South,” Kant said of the summit outcome. “It has also demonstrated that India has a huge capacity of bringing the world together and leading the world in developmental and geopolitical issues.”
–With assistance from Akayla Gardner, Justin Sink, Ruchi Bhatia, Alberto Nardelli, Jorge Valero, Michael Nienaber, Sudhi Ranjan Sen, Jing Li, Simone Iglesias, Samy Adghirni, Selcan Hacaoglu, Alex Wickham and Philip J. Heijmans.