Breaking the US-Russia impasse at the G20 Foreign Ministers’ meet in New Delhi
Less than a month after hosting the G20 Finance Ministers’ and Central Bank Governors’ meeting in Bengaluru last month, India, on 1-2 March, chaired the G20 Foreign Ministers’ meeting in New Delhi amidst continuing acrimony among participants over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This series of meeting are meant to culminate in the 18th G20 Heads of State and Government Summit that is scheduled to be held in New Delhi on 9-10 September. The G20, which includes the world’s 19 wealthiest nations plus the European Union (EU), accounts for 85% of global economic output and two-thirds of its population. At the G20 Foreign Ministers’ meeting, intractable differences between the United States (US)-led Western countries and the Russia-China combine thwarted India’s efforts to forge consensus on a joint statement. Nevertheless, the participants did agree on most issues involving the concerns of the Global South such as strengthening multilateralism, promoting food and energy security, and countering terrorism.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s video message opening the G20 Foreign Ministers meeting underscored the efforts that India had put in to forge a consensus in the highly charged atmosphere. Pointing out that “Many developing countries are struggling with unsustainable debts while trying to ensure food and energy security”, and that “They are also most affected by global warming caused by richer countries”, Modi reminded the participants that “The world looks upon the G20 to ease the challenges of growth, development, economic resilience, disaster resilience, financial stability, trans-national crime, corruption, terrorism, and food and energy security”. He underlined that “The experience of the last few years, the financial crisis, climate change, the pandemic, terrorism and wars clearly shows that global governance has failed. We must also admit that the tragic consequences of this failure are being faced most over by the developing countries”. Alluding to the war in Ukraine, Modi acknowledged that “We are meeting at a time of deep global divisions”, and that discussions would therefore naturally be “affected by the geopolitical tensions of the day” as “We all have our positions and our perspectives on how these tensions should be resolved”. He asserted that “We should not allow issues that we cannot resolve together to come in the way of those we can”. Modi lamented that the two main goals of the post-World War II international order — preventing conflict and fostering cooperation — had proved elusive, and that “The experience of the last two years, financial crisis, pandemic, terrorism and wars clearly shows that global governance has failed in both its mandates”. He warned that “multilateralism is in crisis today”.
When the Foreign Ministers spoke, however, the polarized and animated nature of the discourse meant that New Delhi’s delicate task of balancing its non-aligned policy on the Ukraine war with pleas to other nations to find ways to work together came under stress. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, after enumerating his country’s efforts to bolster energy and food security, also pointedly told the participating ministers that Russia’s war with Ukraine could not go unchallenged. Blinken added, “Unfortunately, this meeting has again been marred by Russia’s unprovoked and unjustified war against Ukraine, deliberate campaign of destruction against civilian targets, and its attack on the core principles of the UN Charter”. Reminding his G20 counterparts that as many as 141 countries had, on the one-year anniversary of the invasion, voted to condemn Russia at the United Nations (UN), the Secretary of State added “We must continue to call on Russia to end its war of aggression and withdraw from Ukraine for the sake of international peace and economic stability”.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was equally combative when he said, “We speak about manners. Well, our Western counterparts have gotten really bad with these. They are not thinking of diplomacy anymore; they now only deal in blackmail and threatening everyone else”. Also, Russian officials were quoted in the media as saying that Moscow and Beijing had agreed to oppose what they called Western blackmail and threats, but such an agreement has not been confirmed by China.
The Chair’s Summary and Outcome Document that was released at the conclusion of the G20 Foreign Ministers’ meeting, meanwhile, informed that “most members strongly condemned the war in Ukraine and stressed it is causing immense human suffering and exacerbating existing fragilities in the global economy – constraining growth, increasing inflation, disrupting supply chains, heightening energy and food insecurity, and elevating financial stability risks”. It pointed out, however, that this statement had not been agreed to by Russia and China.
One of New Delhi’s achievements at the meeting was the face-to-face interaction between Blinken and Lavrov that it helped set up. This was the first in-person meeting between the two Foreign Ministers since the war in Ukraine began just over a year ago, and when the day comes that the warring blocks do finally agree on some form of truce or peace, this breaking of the ice in New Delhi may well find its way into the discourse as the point at which the thaw really began. Media reports suggest that there was hardly anything significant or remarkable that was discussed during the ten minutes that Blinken and Lavrov talked. However, it would have been unrealistic to expect anything more substantial at this early juncture, and in such a brief span of time.
A senior US State Department official was quoted by BBC as saying that Blinken told Lavrov that the West would stand by Ukraine “for as long as it takes”. The Secretary of State also pressed Russia to rejoin and abide by the terms of the New START nuclear arms control treaty that Moscow recently unilaterally withdrew from. Responding to a media question related to his meeting with Lavrov, Blinken said, “We want to make sure that, even as we and dozens of countries around the world are standing up for the basic principles at the heart of the UN Charter that are being trampled on by Russia and its aggression against Ukraine, we’re at the same time also working every single day to address the concerns of people around the world on the issues that are really affecting their lives – whether it is food insecurity, whether it’s climate change, whether it’s creating economic opportunity, building global health resilience, et cetera. All of those things we’ve advanced on yet again here at the G20 and my full expectation is that, when the leaders get together, you’ll see further very concrete outcomes that reflect that consensus”.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova confirmed to CNN that the meeting did take place, but she played down its significance. She said, “Blinken asked for contact with Lavrov. On the go, as part of the second session of the twenty, Sergey Viktorovich (Lavrov) talked. There were no negotiations, meetings, etc”.
A meeting of the Foreign Ministers of the Quad grouping comprising Australia, India, Japan and the US was also held in New Delhi on 3 March. Although China was barely mentioned by name at this meeting, the public comments and the joint statement had repeated references to the importance of democracy, rule of law, maritime security and the peaceful settlement of disputes, all of which Beijing regards with suspicion when coming from Quad members. The Quad statement that was issued after the meeting asserted that “We strongly support the principles of freedom, rule of law, sovereignty and territorial integrity, peaceful settlement of disputes without resorting to threat or use of force and freedom of navigation and overflight, and oppose any unilateral attempt to change the status quo, all of which are essential to the peace, stability and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific region and beyond”. The statement further said that the Quad viewed with concern “challenges to the maritime rules-based order, including in the South and East China Seas”. It reiterated that “We strongly oppose any unilateral actions that seek to change the status quo or increase tensions in the area. We express serious concern at the militarization of disputed features, the dangerous use of coast guard vessels and maritime militia, and efforts to disrupt other countries’ offshore resource exploitation activities”. The Foreign Ministers reiterated “the Quad’s steadfast commitment to supporting a free and open Indo-Pacific, which is inclusive and resilient”.
This meeting irked Beijing, and China’s Foreign Ministry criticized the Quad, saying that “cooperation among countries should conform to the trend of the times for peace and development and should not engage in exclusive cliques”.
The bilateral meeting between the Indian External Affairs Minister (EAM) S. Jaishankar and his recently appointed Chinese counterpart Qin Gang on the sidelines of the G20 meeting was interesting. Commenting on the meeting, Jaishankar said, “We also had a brief discussion on what was happening in the G20 framework. But the thrust of the meeting was really on our bilateral relationship and the challenges in the bilateral relationship, especially that of peace and tranquillity in the border areas”. Jaishankar added that he had communicated that the current state of relations with China, particularly in relation to the situation along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between the two countries, was “abnormal”.
China’s State-run Xinhua news agency quoted an official press release from the Chinese Foreign Ministry as saying that Qin had told Jaishankar that both sides should implement the important consensus of the leaders of the two countries, maintain dialogue and properly resolve disputes, and promote the improvement of bilateral ties. He said that as neighbouring countries and major emerging economies, China and India had far more common interests than differences. The development and revitalization of China and India displayed the strength of developing countries, which will change the future of one-third of the world’s population, the future of Asia, and indeed the whole world, Qin opined. He said “the two sides should view their bilateral relations in the context of the once-in-a-century changes in the world, understand bilateral cooperation from the perspective of their respective national rejuvenation, and be partners on the path to modernization”.
What was interesting at this meeting was China’s reluctance to accept, or even consider, the firmness of the Indian position that cessation of Chinese aggression along the LAC was the fulcrum around which improvement in other aspects of the bilateral relationship will revolve. India has repeatedly emphasized that its ties with China cannot be normal unless there is peace and stability in the border areas. Reports in the Indian media suggested earlier this week that India was even unlikely to participate in a meeting of the Russia-India-China (RIC) grouping until the border situation stabilized. Despite this, Qin chose to parrot the Chinese line that “The boundary issue should be put in the proper place in bilateral relations”, and that the situation on the borders should be brought under normalized management as soon as possible.
One outcome that New Delhi would have liked after the G20 Foreign Ministers met was a joint statement. Asked if he was “disappointed” at the G20s inability to arrive at a joint statement, Jaishankar responded by saying that “Our task was not an easy one given the state of polarization in the world and we were not able to reach a complete consensus as we and a group of countries were able to do in Bali. We tried, but the gap between the countries was too much”. He pointed out that despite the differences, negotiators had been able to achieve consensus on all issues of concern to the Global South. He said, “On the bulk of issues we were able to get an outcome document”.
A notable aspect of the G20 Foreign Ministers meet was that despite the deeply polarized environment that it was held in, India’s role and efforts towards fostering unity was appreciated by all sides of the divide – from Lavrov commending it for its “dignified” position as G20 Chair, to China “supporting” it in fulfilling its chairmanship, and to Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong terming it a “critical” and “great power” without which the Indo-Pacific cannot be reshaped.