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  Opinion   Columnists  14 Sep 2023  Abhijit Bhattacharyya | Did eco focus, Xi absence spell Delhi G-20 success?

Abhijit Bhattacharyya | Did eco focus, Xi absence spell Delhi G-20 success?

The writer is an alumnus of the National Defence College, and the author of China in India.
Published : Sep 15, 2023, 12:05 am IST
Updated : Sep 15, 2023, 12:05 am IST

President Joe Biden: “It would be nice to have Xi Jinping here but the summit is going well”.

President of China Xi Jinping. (AFP)
 President of China Xi Jinping. (AFP)

The just-concluded G-20 summit in New Delhi is now a part of history, made notable by the absence of the top leaders of two prominent members, both with powerful militaries, who sent others to represent them. While it was somewhat understandable for Russia’s Vladimir Putin to stay away, due to his preoccupation with a “special military operation” in Ukraine, what was the logic behind the non-appearance of Beijing’s overlord Xi Jinping in the middle of so much global turbulence? Mexico’s President also stayed away, but he has been skipping G-20 jamborees for a long time.

Given that the G-20’s focus is primarily economic, and it’s not a security alliance, it’s worthwhile to remember that not too long ago, in 2019, of the three absentees, China had the world’s second biggest economy, Russia the 11th and Mexico the 15th.

The G-20’s mood over President Xi’s absence was succinctly expressed by President Joe Biden: “It would be nice to have Xi Jinping here but the summit is going well”. The unstated sub-text was loud and clear: that Mr Xi’s absence allowed proceedings to run smoother as the Han spanner — the biggest hazard to the economics/geopolitics of the non-Communist world — was not there.

That this was working became evident when on September 9, the summit’s first day, a Beijing think tank said “India was taking advantage as G-20 summit host by promoting its own agenda to harm Chinese interests”. Chinese Premier Li Qiang, who was representing Mr Xi, was visibly uncomfortable in New Delhi, missing the pomp and show that he is used to while attending Beijing-sponsored events like the BRI, CPEC, RCEP and many others. It is little wonder then that Mr Li urged the G-20 to follow a line of “inclusion, and not confrontation”. Separately, he also urged EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen for “unity and cooperation” between the EU and China against “global uncertainties”. He couldn’t  appreciate the irony: Who is today the prime mover of “global uncertainties”?

Mr Li might wish to ponder why British PM Rishi Sunak would choose the Delhi G-20, of all places, to give a piece of his mind to China’s PM on “significant concerns about China’s interference in UK’s parliamentary democracy” by planting a Han spy in the House of Commons?

In one way, China’s belated apprehension about its non-presence must be a matter of self-introspection owing to the surprising regrouping of the adversely affected economies which faced Beijing’s chronic unethical means to achieve its goals. Two landmark deals were unveiled on the sidelines of the G-20 summit with the signing of the memorandum of understanding on the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor between the EU, the United States, India, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other G-20 partners in a clear bid to counter the Chinese and Mr Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative.

An elated President Biden hailed it as “big deal, really big deal” and his entourage referred to it as “far-reaching investments”. The EU chief and several others around the world also enthusiastically participated in the announcement. Although no time schedule has been set as yet, it has certainly left no doubt in the minds of analysts on what it means and which country will see this venture with a sense of concern.

Simply put, the rail, port and corridor connectivity is one of the most optimistic, yet doable, of all conceived plans in recent times, despite the fact that the Middle East traditionally has been a volatile terrain of chronic violence between local rulers, inter- and intra-ethnic groups. It will, therefore, continue to be a big challenge for all stakeholders involved in the project — including the US, Europe and India. Without stability and ability on the part of Middle East itself to mutually accommodate various conflicting issues and interests, well-wishers from outside the region will find it hard to stick to the project time schedule. Despite being an excellent idea, it is imperative to bring the conflicting interests to an implementable, acceptable and enduring understanding to play the game by the rules.

Coming back to the surprising consensus in the G-20’s New Delhi Declaration on the Ukraine war, the real question is why the United States and the West agreed to a compromise on less bellicose language, which Russia and China were ready to accept. It appears, prima facie, that economics once again triumphed. Fatigue seems to have set in, particularly in Europe, as the war which began on February 24, 2022, has gone on for 19 months, and there is no end in sight. The brutal war has already taken an enormous toll not only on the two belligerents, but on all countries. True, the West is supplying arms to Ukraine to fight and recover its “lost land” from the Russian “aggressor”.

Nevertheless, as more time passes, the more the loss to the West and its allies. As none of the 50-plus Western countries has the stomach to fight a prolonged conventional war, the murmurs and rumbling in the West’s façade of unity is both audible and visible. From foodgrains, gas, fertilisers, finance and fuel to firepower, all is heading towards critical points. Hence, the strong voice of a united West heard in Bali in 2022 has turned somewhat feeble and muted in Delhi in 2023.

Therefore, in no G-20 country, except perhaps for some mega arms manufacturers in the US, does anyone want the war to continue. Even Russia feels the future consequence of its colossal battlefield casualties and potential crisis at home. Everyone is gasping for breath. Everyone is craving for economics. China too, despite its frequent sabre-rattling diplomacy, realises the futility of an Armageddon which could shred the fragility of its internal fraternity in areas which it goes on ruthlessly suppressing and throttling.

Amid these contrasting and competitive interests, however, the induction of the African Union was undoubtedly the best thing to happen at the 2023 Delhi summit. The admission of the 50-plus bloc was long overdue. No doubt the resource-rich African bloc’s inclusion was welcomed as the economic corridor would be the basis for growth of the continent which so far had remained in the backyard of global economics.

Overall, therefore, the protracted European war appears to have instilled a sense of fear, leading to a desire for moderation. Consequently, has G-20 finally decided to return to economics as its first priority? Unfortunately, except for Ukraine, which’s being goaded to face bullets alone, not one G-20 member’s complaining today because all are still physically unharmed. In the bigger power play of the big boys, Ukraine is a martyr and Russia is a pariah.

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