India assumed the presidency of G-20 for one year commencing on December 1, 2022. Its presidency comes at a time when the world has been gripped by uncertainties arising out of post-pandemic economic recession; the ripple effects of the Russia-Ukraine war, particularly food and energy insecurity; and long-standing problems such as climate change, terrorism, and xenophobic tendencies across the world.
Through its stewardship, India hopes to make a meaningful impact towards abating the prevalent disharmony and this hope is reflected in the theme adopted for its presidency: Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam or ‘One Earth, One Family, One Future’. It is an opportunity for India to showcase that it is ready to take on the task of reinvigorating multilateral institutions which have been found vulnerable due to continued geopolitical rivalries.
The current president (India) along with its predecessor (Indonesia) and successor (Brazil) form the Troika at the G-20 and this is the first instance when all three members of the Troika are among the developing countries. As a result, India’s presidency holds special significance as far as furthering the interests of the developing world is concerned.
Moreover, with the increasing importance of the concept of Indo-Pacific, and considering that there are substantial overlaps between the agenda of G-20 and the issues that are pertinent to the Indo-Pacific, India can use its year-long G-20 presidency to manifest its vision of a "free, inclusive, and open" Indo-Pacific. However, this article argues that there are inherent contradictions vis-a-vis India's approach towards multilateralism in general as well as regarding its vision of the Indo-Pacific region. The effectiveness of its leadership will depend on how India navigates through both these contradictions.
The dilemma in India’s multilateralism
As several scholars have argued, India has always dealt with the dilemma of maintaining the identity of a third-world country on one hand, while simultaneously expecting to be recognized as a responsible global power on the other. In the years following its independence, India took upon itself the responsibility to lead a coalition of non-aligned countries which would steer away from the cold war power dynamics. During this time, while India critiqued the West-led multilateral institutions, it shied away from taking the mantle of reform on its own shoulders.
The trend continued even after the end of the Cold War, and this reticence defies the aspirations for India to be recognized as a global leader. It has been argued that India is a status-quoist and risk-averse state which favours a very slow and incremental change in the international system. In the past, India could bypass the responsibility of bringing about change in the multilateral institutions by arguing that these institutions lack proportionate representation of the global south. Therefore, now that India is actually in a leadership role of an influential grouping like the G-20, it will be interesting to note how it balances the duality of its role perception: whether it identifies itself as the leader of the global south or as a newly emerged power which belongs to the high table of international diplomacy.
For instance, there have been calls for expanding the membership of G-20 as many countries have expressed dissatisfaction against their exclusion from the grouping. G-20 consists of 19 countries along with the European Union (EU); the presence of the EU makes Europe, and consequently the West, over-represented. Africa is grossly under-represented (only South Africa is a member), and so is South-East Asia. It has been argued that if the EU can be accommodated in the G-20 architecture, then the same should be extended to include the African Union and ASEAN as well. India’s commitment to ‘universality and inclusivity’ will be tested through its willingness to push for such reforms.
The dilemma in India’s Indo-Pacific vision
In his speech at Chulalongkorn University, Thailand on August 18, 2022, India's External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar spoke that India envisages a “free, open, inclusive, peaceful, and prosperous Indo-Pacific region, one which is built on a rules-based international order”. He also reiterated that India stands by the notion of ASEAN centrality in the Indo-Pacific. However, in the same speech, Jaishankar called QUAD the most prominent plurilateral platform that addresses contemporary challenges and opportunities in the Indo-Pacific.
As has been pointed out, emphasis on minilateral groupings like the QUAD goes against the principles of openness and inclusivity proclaimed by India. Moreover, the rise of QUAD has also raised suspicion among the ASEAN states that it could disrupt the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) from its position of centrality in the region’s security order. There are also apprehensions that certain initiatives by the QUAD, such as the launch of the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness (IPMDA) program could lead to increased militarization of the region.
The argument is that the surveillance actions undertaken through the IPMDA program could trigger a Chinese response which could spiral into a wider military conflict in the region. It is not surprising, therefore, that China has already accused the QUAD of being nothing less than an Asian version of NATO. The Indian strategic community seems to be torn between projecting New Delhi as a benign power in the region on one hand and pushing toward increasing militarization of the region with an eye on China on the other.
India’s G-20 presidency presents it with an opportunity to be recognized as a reliable security actor in the region. Post-pandemic economic recovery, supply chain resilience, technology, and climate change are a few of the overlapping issues straddling both the G-20 grouping and the Indo-Pacific region. Establishing agreements on these issues at the G-20 forum will allow India to provide a model for building a stable security architecture in the Indo-Pacific as well.
Penchant for strategic autonomy
How India handles the quandary of these divergent tracks relating to its multilateralism and its Indo-Pacific vision will determine how effective its leadership becomes in forging a just and inclusive regional and world order that it claims to stand for. Ambivalence has been a characteristic feature of Indian foreign policy and overcoming this will not come naturally. An argument can be made that ambivalence derives from the quest of achieving its preference for strategic autonomy which is deeply rooted in India’s strategic culture.
However, it should be noted that India’s leadership at any regional or world forum will be potent only if it is well accepted by the states which are being led; and while deliberate ambiguity and strategic autonomy might go hand in hand, ambiguity does not sit well with leadership. Thus, India can use its one-year presidency to demonstrate that it is capable of leading a broadly divided G-20 to make decisive interventions for the benefit of developed and developing states alike.