As G20 President, Can India Advance Its Multipolar Worldview?

Recent Features

Features | Diplomacy | South Asia

As G20 President, Can India Advance Its Multipolar Worldview?

India will use its chairmanship to address the need for better Global South representation in multilateral bodies and enhanced roles for middle powers.

As G20 President, Can India Advance Its Multipolar Worldview?

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (center) sits next to Indonesian President Joko Widodo (right) at the closing of the G-20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, Nov. 16, 2022.

Credit: G-20

Days after the G-20 summit in Bali, which marked the end of the Indonesian presidency and heralded the group’s Indian leadership for the new term beginning in December, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed his domestic audience about India’s “big opportunity” to “focus on global good.” This encapsulated the essence of his speech at the closing session of the summit in Indonesia, which linked India’s global ambitions of establishing a multipolar world and its growing projection as the leader of the Global South.

Thus, the overarching theme of India’s G-20 presidency will revolve around development (making the G-20 “a catalyst for global change”). This primarily involves facilitating the redistribution of global goods by enhancing sustainable partnerships between developed and developing countries, and also reinvigorating South-South cooperation.

Undoubtedly, it will be a vehicle for India to unshackle itself from its long-standing image as an emerging middle power with untapped potential and move toward achieving its great power ambitions by hopefully closing the gap with major powers like China and even Japan – the latter an influential “like-minded” partner with its own burgeoning global (or Asian superpower) ambitions. Thus, underneath the myriad philosophical interpretations of India’s newly launched G-20 logo, which invokes Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, Advait philosophy, Buddha, and Mahatma Gandhi, among others, the crux of the matter lies in power projection while advancing India’s own foreign policy goals and interests.

Of late, India has been reiterating its essential foreign policy goals, including equitable power distribution, need for better Global South representation in multilateral bodies, and enhanced responsibility-bearing for middle powers to reduce reliance on major powers like the United States and China, which have caused immense harm through their increasing strategic competition.

But will the G-20 presidency help advance India’s multipolar worldview and create a credible partnership between nations that above all furthers the Indo-Pacific’s peace and prosperity? Or will it constrain India’s strategic choices, largely because of the increasing polarization between G-20 members such as the United States-led allies versus China and problems arising out of Russia’s increasing isolation?

In the Shadow of Ineffective Multilateralism

First the COVID-19 pandemic and now the Ukraine war have instilled a sense of hopelessness largely due to the fraying, if not lack, of international solidarity. The multilateral bodies have been particularly conspicuous by their toothless response. The time is thus ripe for India, which has been vocal about reforms in these world bodies, to showcase its leadership vision.

On a hopeful note, consider that the G-20 provided a robust response after it was created in the aftermath of the 1997 financial crisis and then again when promoted to a leaders’-level summit grouping in 2008 in the midst of another financial crisis. In that light, today’s challenges propelled by the new Cold War situation (among them: the Ukraine war, fourth Taiwan crisis, North Korean threat, food, energy, and finance crises, etc.) while no doubt daunting, are not unwinnable. That should certainly be India’s takeaway as it strives for more robust multilateralism.

However, in these unprecedented times, the G-20 is at the risk of losing relevance as a primarily financial institution considering most issues that dominate today are geopolitical and security focused. Moreover, an overall global governance and public goods provision gap is emerging given that great powers are consumed with geopolitical rivalry.

Against this scenario, India, which is mindful of its responsibility to address the crisis of multilateralism, has the unenviable task to rejuvenate the G-20 as a central multilateral forum that is capable of achieving positive outcomes. It also has a much bigger task to restore the general faith in such multilateral forums, which are today seen as mere talking shops and not harbingers of better times. Modi’s closing speech seemed to recognize this imperative when it called for an “inclusive, ambitious, decisive, and action-oriented” approach.

Notably, India’s G-20 presidency will coincide with its Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) presidency. The convergence highlights India’s growing role as a conduit between the East and the West, and bodes well for India’s foreign policy goal of encouraging dialogues between disparate factions. It also puts India in a unique position where it will be able to share concerns and facilitate common agendas to truly effect regional and global development through these distinct but important forums.

As was clear at the Bali Summit, divisive actions like the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the China-U.S. rivalry could undermine the G-20 agenda. Modi will need to actively downplay regional, global, or ideological tensions and focus on a constructive agenda, such as energy security, climate action, digitalization, and economic growth. Already, Modi’s anti-war message for Russian President Vladimir Putin at the SCO in September was included into the G-20’s Bali Declaration (“Today’s era must not be of war”).

Going forward, New Delhi must attempt to insulate the G-20 from geopolitical issues and internal divisions among members to focus on the economic sphere and avoid it being taken hostage by bilateral politics. As such, there is an opportunity here for India to push for the multipolar international system it supports, given that India perceives it as a solution for preventing conflict and polarization.

Coalescing Middle Power Strengths

The Ukraine war has changed the strategic importance of non-aligned emerging powers. At the G-20 Bali Summit, their growing influence was clear, as they were able to avoid being pushed by Western powers into condemning Russia and were central to pushing through the G-20 agenda despite the ongoing tensions. India, as an influential middle power with limited clout, has an opportunity to step up its engagement and assume more responsibility to lead situations instead of allowing major powers to dominate bilateral or even regional issues.

India is in a special position where it can continue its strategic non-alignment, allowing it avoid getting bogged down in geopolitics, and focus on public goods provision and the building of a sustainable global economy. While a massive challenge, building bridges over rivalries is an opportunity only for middle powers. It will allow them to fully integrate themselves into the global system and carve their own place. India should also continue to build on the efforts of Indonesia in defending multilateralism and the principles of G-20 decision-making in order to preserve unity.

For harnessing middle power tools, India must especially coordinate with its like-minded and long-term partners such as Japan and Australia. Japan in particular is significant because of its upcoming G-7 presidency in 2023. Under two Asian presidencies, these global multilateral forums, that traverse both the emerging and the rich economies, are at a propitious juncture to work in tandem to promote universal values and common developmental interests. Although the relevance of the G-7 is under question primarily due to the rise of G-20, there is no reason why the two cannot join forces, especially under the leadership of two Indo-Pacific states.

Furthermore, India should use its presidency to expand the partnerships of the G-20. For example, increased participation from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as an important pillar of the multilateral, multipolar order will advance India’s regional foreign policy goals. For a long time, although India’s Act East policy includes ASEAN as an important cog in its Indo-Pacific vision, the bloc has remained largely on the fringes of India’s foreign policy because security cooperation through other regional groupings like the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) has taken precedence. Nevertheless, with New Delhi and ASEAN elevating ties to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in November, there is scope for closer cooperation in economic domains especially through the G20 leadership.

Importantly for the Indo-Pacific, given the overlap in issues of COVID-19 recovery, supply chain resilience, technology, and climate change, there is the possibility for India to lead the G20 to agreements that will ensure benefits to (South and) Southeast Asia. Moreover, lessons could be learnt from ASEAN, which faces similar internal divisions amid geopolitical tensions and is fighting to stay relevant.

Championing Global South Imperatives

Notably, India seems intent to use the G-20 presidency to push for the important foreign policy goal of championing the developing world’s causes. Again, this plays into India’s strengths of harnessing its long-standing experience in advancing the developing world’s interests, while also successfully maneuvering outreach with developed states. Thus, it could become a leader in coordinating development cooperation. Out of the innumerable issues facing the developing world, India will likely focus on key concerns such as food and energy insecurity, the digital divide, climate change (particularly climate finance), and debt distress.

Importantly, this is an opportunity to highlight India’s concerns about “the non-democratic and unequal nature of global governance institutions.” For example, India has contended that the multilateral financial institutions have not leveraged the “endowments they have, optimally, nor do they have a plan through which to better address the concerns of further funding countries and their developmental goals.” Therefore, for India, reforming these bodies is imperative to address the 21st century challenges and include representation that reflects the shifting economic balance of power, as also the needs of the underdeveloped regions.

In this context, India must take a leaf out of its own rhetoric by expanding the G-20 membership to include more African nations (currently, South Africa is the only African member) and the African Union (AU). Senegalese President and current AU Chairperson Macky Sall and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa have already remarked on the need to “serve the interests of all” with wider representation. In a boost for the AU, French President Emmanuel Macron has expressed solidarity with the South and accepted the AU’s integration into the G-20.

Indeed, if Modi is able to follow through on these democratic and truly multilateral ideals by beginning to overhaul the existing frayed international governance system, one forum at a time, India’s G-20 presidency would be a momentous celebration for all.