K.C. Singh | China, Ukraine shadow over Sept G-20 summit

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy hopes for a peace summit of world leaders .

Senior officials from nearly 40 nations attended the peace conference on the Ukraine war in Jeddah on August 6-7. Russia was not invited, though China and India attended. The European Union was represented, though more significant was the attendance by nations from the Global South. These included Brics members Brazil and South Africa as well as Indonesia, Mexico and Egypt. This was a second conference on the subject after the one in Copenhagen in June, which China did not attend.

America’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan lurked like a watchful co-hostess at a party. It was a Saudi show, with the nation repositioning itself as a neutral mediator with good relations with all the principal powers. Saudi Arabia and Russia have worked closely to regulate the oil production by the expanded 13-nation Opec cartel, now named Opec+. China has also drawn closer to them, offering a huge oil sale market while the US-EU combine have been sanctioning its oil exports.

Besides image-building as an independent power, the Saudis used the conference to overcome hiccups in Saudi-US relations. They provided a stage to enable Ukraine to expand support amongst the Global South, which had largely remained indifferent or neutral over the Ukraine war. Although Prime Minister Narendra Modi eventually spoke to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, India has basically stuck to anodyne statements about respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity as the founding principles of the UN Charter.

Very few statements emerged after the meeting, but the ones which did are significant. China stated that it was important that “our principles are shared” and that they support another round to take the discussions forward. The Russian reaction was on the expected lines, saying peace talks were possible only if Ukraine put down its arms. It added that Ukraine must cede occupied territories and that “the original foundation of Ukraine’s sovereignty -- its neutral, non-aligned and non-nuclear status -- must be confirmed”.

Likewise, Ukraine restated its 10-point proposal, which it wanted the Jeddah conference to endorse. Parts of it which are about sovereignty and territorial integrity have general support, but perhaps not the demand for the complete withdrawal by Russia from all territories occupied after February 2022 as well as earlier, including Crimea. These are maximalist positions that each warring side can be expected to reiterate. However, a decision to set up working groups of officials and ambassadors and the consensus on another meeting by autumn are steps forward. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy hopes for a “peace summit of world leaders”. The working groups shall handle key themes like global food security (endangered by the Russian blockage of grain exports via the Black Sea), environment security, nuclear safety (in view of the repeated threats by Russia to use nuclear weapons) and humanitarian aid. The last is a pressing issue as Russia has escalated its attacks on civil infrastructure, including ports on the Danube river, as well as civilians. In fact, as the Jeddah conference was happening, Russian missiles hit a blood transfusion centre.

The reality is that these confabulations took place in the background of multiple events that are happening or expected over the coming months. The Ukraine war has reignited with the launch of the Ukrainian counter-offensive. That has met with limited success due to Russia’s deeply entrenched defensive positions and air dominance.

Russia has also unleashed its counter-offensive in the north to drain away Ukrainian military resources from its southern campaign. Ukraine has been urgently seeking more Western weapons, including F-16 fighter planes to level the Russian air dominance. Even if approved by the US, the new planes will take months to induct as the pilots would need to be retrained. It is possible that the Ukrainian forces may still break through but without air dominance they will get stalled before they get to their target to reach the Sea of Azov.

The attendance at the conference by India’s national security adviser Ajit Doval, besides keeping India relevant in international diplomacy, was due to only a month remaining for the much-anticipated G-20 summit in New Delhi in early September. Just prior to that, on August 20-22, is the Brics summit in South Africa. Prime Minister Modi is attending that. The question is whether Chinese President Xi Jinping will attend both the summits, or one or neither.

China has caused a public debate in India by revealing, after the recent Brics’ NSAs meeting in South Africa, that President Xi Jinping had more than a cursory meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at last year’s Bali G-20 summit. China claimed that a consensus was reached over normalising relations. The Indian briefings after that interaction had downplayed it by calling it a mere handshake. India has been sticking to the public position that normalcy cannot be restored in bilateral relations unless the pre-Galwan status quo is restored across the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh.

With the Lok Sabha polls fast approaching, the Modi government cannot afford another Chinese snub or surprise. Ideally, it would want the status quo ante restored to enable its nationalist credentials to be marketed. It is beginning to sense that the Chinese may not oblige without major concessions. That is why external affairs minister S. Jaishankar has been claiming almost daily that steps have been taken by the government to better handle China. The latest is a claim that the expenditure on infrastructure along the LAC is quadruple what earlier governments had allocated. If President Xi comes to India, a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Modi would be unavoidable as the PM would be so engaging with his other guests like US President Joe Biden.

The Opposition would naturally demand an account of the meeting and what assurances the Prime Minister had got to extract on China vacating the encroached Indian territory, especially in the Depsang Plains near the vital Karakoram Pass in Ladakh.

As regards the Ukraine war, neither side appears ready for a ceasefire yet. It is possible the US is beginning to push Ukraine towards accepting that time for militarily altering the ground situation is running out. Autumn brings rain and sludge in Ukraine, making field operations even tougher. Russia has the demography and military infrastructure in its favour. Thus, by autumn, the picture will be clearer and both sides may conclude that benefit lies in a ceasefire. The G-20 summit in New Delhi unfortunately misses that window. A resurgent Opposition in India may welcome the end of the excessive diplomatic theatre and return to the pressing domestic issues such as Manipur and Nuh.

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