As G20 president for a year, India is playing a key role in shaping the global agenda. This week sees the arrival of the G7’s foreign ministers as part of the G20 foreign ministers’ summit in Delhi

by Minhaz Merchant

Over a period of seven days, India will have hosted the finance ministers and foreign ministers of the G20 — a powerful group of the world’s 20 largest economies, including the five veto-carrying permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). As G20 president for a year, India is playing a key role in shaping the global agenda.

The United States-led West is transactional. For decades, India was regarded as part of the problem, not part of the solution. It was a former British colony with a tiny economy, extreme poverty and social divisions. The West paid it little attention. Western media wasn’t interested except to write condescending stories about the coexistence in India of urban slums and space satellites.

The Western political establishment, led by the Washington-London consensus, leant towards Pakistan. The military dictators in Rawalpindi did the West’s bidding in return for funds siphoned off by the Pakistani army’s top brass.

Matters changed after 2001. The 9/11 terror attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon opened Western eyes. Most of the terrorists who had hijacked four American passenger jetliners and crashed them into the New York towers and the Pentagon were Pakistani or Saudi.

And yet, Washington needed to double-deal Pakistan logistically to help wage its 20-year war in Afghanistan. Once Pakistan’s utility value in Afghanistan was over in 2021, the US hung it out to dry. The US-controlled International Monetary Fund (IMF) will drive Islamabad to near-bankruptcy before giving it a conditional lifeline.

Where does India figure in the West’s contemporary strategic worldview? That worldview has undergone two major changes. The first was caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the second by the economic rise of China.

In the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US became, for the first time in history, the world’s sole superpower. Through the past two centuries, the British Empire, Napoleonic France and imperial Russia had at different times contested global hegemony. After the Second World War, the United States and the Soviet Union shared geopolitical power: US-led NATO confronted the Soviet Union’s Warsaw Pact powers in Europe.

In 1991, following the dismemberment of the Soviet Union, the US was at last free to wage war as it liked. It had always been eager to go to war. It had invaded Mexico in the 1840s and captured large swathes of Mexican territory that are today southern California, Texas, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado.

After two world wars, the US turned to Asia. In the 1950s, it fought in the Korean war; in the 1960s it bombed Vietnam. Liberated by the end of the Cold War, the US now sharpened its focus on the Middle East. It waged devastating wars on Iraq, Syria and Yemen. It raised its sights further north, bombing the Balkan states and breaking Yugoslavia into seven independent countries in eastern Europe.

Throughout, the British were at America’s elbow, encouraging its military aggression and taking active part in it. After all, the British had colonised North America, driven native Americans into impoverished Reservations and led the transatlantic slave trade. Over 40 million black Americans today are descendants of that cruel, centuries-long enterprise run by British slave ships from the ports of Liverpool, Bristol and Southampton.

But it was the inexorable rise of China that transformed the Anglospheric worldview. No longer was the US the sole superpower. China posed a realistic economic, technological and military challenge.

In the midst of this, Russia invaded Ukraine, reshaping the balance of global power. Now the Washington-London consensus had a new threat: a formidable China-Russia axis.

Washington had begun paying more attention to India under the George W Bush administration. The 2008 India-US nuclear deal was the beginning of a new strategic partnership. The US knows India is the only country with the ability to counter China’s threat. The Quad alliance between the US, India, Japan and Australia is a consequence of Washington’s new geopolitical strategy.

US President Joe Biden’s planned visit to India in September 2023 for the G20 heads of government summit will be preceded by an official state visit to Washington by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in July 2023. It is significant that the only major official state visit granted by Biden in over two years as president has been to America’s oldest ally, France. President Emmanuel Macron was hosted to a state banquet at the White House in December 2022. Modi will be the second world leader to receive a State visit in the Biden White House.

The fly in the ointment of course is Ukraine. India’s abstention from UN resolutions on the Russia-Ukraine war has created a frisson of anger in the West, especially in Europe where the war has caused significant damage to European economies.

And yet, the West has suppressed its annoyance at India’s recalcitrance. It cannot afford to push India beyond a point: a country that is set to become the world’s third-largest economy by 2027 and which already has a consumer market larger than that of any single country bar China.

That is why US treasury secretary Janet Yellen, gritting her teeth, was compelled to forgo, at the conclusion of the G20 finance ministers’ summit in Bengaluru last week, a joint communiqué that would have included a critique of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

This week sees the arrival of the G7’s foreign ministers as part of the G20 foreign ministers’ summit in Delhi. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is deeply aware of India’s growing strategic importance. He is unlikely to rock the boat. The same can’t be said of some foreign ministers who resent a former European colony telling them how to run the world.

Those who know their history will point out that it was Europe – Britain, France, Spain and Portugal – that came to India in the 17th century seeking trade for their under-developed, low-middle-income economies.

Britain overstayed its welcome for 190 years. While impoverishing India, it enriched itself. A quiet reminder by India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar to British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly of this history and the two countries’ shared future will set the tone for the G20 foreign ministers’ discussion on the emerging world order.