Narendra Modi at G20: PM's exhaustive push for multilateralism runs up against nation's capacity constraints
In his two days at the Japanese city, the Indian prime minister has participated in one multilateral, two trilateral and several bilateral meetings on the sidelines of the 14th edition.
The need to chart its own path even as India nurtures relationships with competing powers arises as much from India’s current strategic imperatives
This willingness to engage while charting its own path is not Modi’s imprimatur on foreign policy, but the continuity of India’s strategic culture
In some ways, foreign policy under Modi 2.0 may also be interpreted as India’s effort to recover some lost ground
Narendra Modi has been a busy man at the G20 summit in Osaka. In his two days at the Japanese city, the Indian prime minister has participated in one multilateral, two trilateral and several bilateral meetings on the sidelines of the 14th edition.
Modi has joined Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe and US president Donald Trump in a trilateral grouping before meeting Chinese president Xi Jinping and Russian president Vladimir Putin in another. He also joined a meeting of BRICS leaders (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) in a third session and held a host of bilats with Abe, Trump, South Korea president Moon Jae-in, Saudi Arabia crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and German chancellor Angela Merkel, among others.
The logic driving Modi’s hyperactivism at the G20 summit is India’s push for multilateralism that has come to replace “strategic autonomy” as the cornerstone of India’s foreign policy. India seeks to promote a “multipolar world” with “many centers of influence and stability”, as Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale said in a media briefing post Modi’s assembly with Xi and Putin.
As a rising power that must balance own capacity constraints with an increasing ambition to protect its broadening interests, influence international affairs and execute its role as a benign maritime force in Indo-Pacific to uphold the rules-based order, India doesn’t want to get sucked into the vortex of the great power game between the US and China and consequently have to choose sides. New Delhi feels alignment with one of the two great powers or remaining constricted within a definite strategic framework may restrict its strategic options and prove deleterious to its self-interest.
The need to chart its own path even as India nurtures relationships with competing powers arises as much from India’s current strategic imperatives as an embedded belief in own exceptionalism rooted in civilisational statecraft. This may have innately informed Modi’s foreign policy. This continuity has been noted by scholars such as Aparna Pande, whose book From Chanakya to Modi traces an ideational link in India’s journey from Arthashastra to the present.
If we look closely at Modi’s engagements, we may note the distinct attempt by New Delhi to carry out a balancing act. The items on agenda, too, point towards such a conclusion. Often, India remained the only string threading competing camps that are working to constrain each other’s influence. The vision statements released post-meeting highlighted the incongruity while India’s position remained undefined and ambiguous.
Modi’s bilateral with Abe and subsequent trilateral also involving Trump — three of the four members of the quadrilateral grouping — focused on “free and open Indo-Pacific” and “quality infrastructure” — euphemisms for the coercive infrastructure promoted by China that are ensnaring the smaller Indo-Pacific nations in a debt-trap.
As the foreign secretary said during his media briefing after the meet, “The main topic of the discussion was the Indo-Pacific about how the three countries can work together in terms of connectivity, in terms of infrastructure, in terms of ensuring that peace and security is maintained and in terms of working together to build upon this new concept so that it benefits the region as a whole and for the three countries of course.”
During Modi’s trilateral with Putin and Xi, however, the focus was on globalisation, on maintaining “liberalisation of trade”, “free trading system, an open trading system, a rules-based trading system, to oppose the tendency towards protectionism and to give a proper direction to WTO reform.”
As countries that have benefitted immensely from globalisation and free movements of goods and services, China and India’s common ground here was evident, and it is not hard to imagine that the statement takes a potshot at Trump’s protectionist measures that seek to reorient the global geo-economic landscape. What we see here, therefore, is an attempt by India that may seem inherently contradictory, but is informed by a strategic posture that seeks to shape the future for a billion people.
So on the one hand Modi joins Abe and Trump in promoting rules-based international order to ensure peace, stability and prosperity in Indo-Pacific, on the other hand India finds common ground with China while battling the shenanigans of a US president who’s grievance narrative on trade deficits, tariffs and “reciprocal trade” threatens to push global economy into a trade war.
This fork is even more evident in India’s refusal to sign the declaration on free flow of data across borders where India found itself boxed with China on one side and the developed nations on the other. Here, India is quite clearly deviating from its quad partners Japan and the US in upholding data as the “new form of wealth” and has stressed on data localisation in complete contradiction with Abe and Trump’s statements who have called for Data Free Flow with Trust (DFFT) mechanism to ensure free flow of data across borders.
India has also stressed on the need for framing rules on data under the jurisdiction of WTO. To quote FS Gokhale’s words during the briefing post BRICS engagement, “From our perspective data is a major issue, it is an issue which we are also domestically looking at where international rule-making is taking place, our view and the view of the other BRICS countries is that this should be discussed within the WTO context and not outside the WTO context and that data also needs to take into account the requirements of developing countries.”
On trade, therefore, and on management of digital wealth, India found more common ground with China — its strategic rival — than with strategic partners Japan and the US. This contradiction was apparent even more on the question on 5G where Modi gave no commitment to Trump on whether India will keep Chinese firm Huawei out of its 5G trials: a demand the US has placed on its allies and partners, including India. However, if we note Modi’s words during his bilateral with Trump carefully, we may note a willingness to engage with the US on this issue.
“The prime minister outlined that we are going to be a billion users of this technology and in that sense India is the second largest market in the world. The way India moves or the way whatever choices India makes will essentially determine the way the global trend will go. And therefore the prime minister said it is important that we collaborate,” said the foreign secretary at the briefing.
This willingness to engage while charting its own path is not Modi’s imprimatur on foreign policy, but the continuity of India’s strategic culture. Interestingly, some of Modi’s bilats with heads of rival powers held on G20 sidelines are shortly to be repeated, perhaps more elaborately, in the coming few months.
The prime minister will travel to Vladivostok in September for the eastern economic forum, acting on an invitation from Putin, he is scheduled to host Xi in October for the return leg of Wuhan informal meet and he may meet Trump again in September.
If the US, the beleaguered world power that seeks to maintain its hold over global affairs and occupy the driver’s seat in digital transformation of industrialisation, China and Russia present the other axis that seeks to shape the contours of global economy and challenge America’s role as the sole hegemon. It is instructive to note, therefore, that Modi is seeking to engage with all three leaders shortly after his meetings with Trump, Xi and Putin on the sidelines of G20.
In some ways, foreign policy under Modi 2.0 may also be interpreted as India’s effort to recover some lost ground as a normative power as professor Ian Hall wrote in his paper Narendra Modi and India’s normative power. Hall’s contention is that in his effort to restore India’s status as a “normative power” and a vishwaguru — a state with the influence to define what behaviour is normal and desirable in international relations — Modi must confront India’s capacity constraints, manage India’s “interactions with strategic partners and rivals, as well as its vexed relations with the other states of South Asia.”
At G20, we perhaps saw one iteration of this effort.
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