Some years stay permanently etched in memory: 1971, the year of the liberation of Bangladesh; 1998, the year of India’s nuclear tests; and 2008, the year when the India-US nuclear deal was signed. This new year could possibly be added to the list, when India’s foreign policy may scale new heights. Since 2023 will also be the precursor to the general elections in the following year, the world will closely watch the evolution not only of India’s creative diplomacy but also its progress as the planet’s largest democracy. Will the nation navigate wisely through the ocean of opportunities and challenges that face it?
There are signs for optimism, but also warning signals which advise caution. A realistic appraisal of the international situation today is, therefore, instructive.
The year of double presidencies of the Group of 20 and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) brings enormous prestige and responsibility. As the premier international forum that influences world economy and governance, the G20 is now led by a strong and stable government and a charismatic ‘foreign policy’ Prime Minister with an extensive network of personal equations with most world leaders. This enhances the significance of the two forums. The G20 Secretariat is working overtime to convene 215 events spread across 55 locations in the country, ensuring that the G20 will dominate our media and mind space. But the SCO is significant too at this juncture of world affairs, being a grouping of Asia’s major powers and India’s key neighbours, which shapes the security environment in South, Central and West Asia.
The summits of the two groupings will bring some of the most powerful and influential leaders to India throughout the year. As the host and chair, India has to maintain a fine balance, showcase its cultural vibrance, set the agenda, engineer reconciliation among differing perspectives, and deliver concrete outcomes to promote collective interests.
With responsibility and prestige come daunting challenges encapsulated in the five Cs: Covid, Contraction (of the world economy), Climate crisis, Conflict (in Ukraine), and China.
Covid has exacted a heavy toll, with the virus infecting nearly 658 million people and resulting in 6.6 million deaths worldwide. Three years since its detection in Wuhan, it is still prevalent and continuously mutating. It is now wreaking havoc in the country of its origin. In 2020, the world failed to insulate itself against China. Can it do so this time? Experts are hopeful, particularly about India’s chances. India used democratic trust and technology to make a creaky public health system to ride out the worst of the virus. This still continues, with domestic policymakers engaged in developing strategies to combat the pandemic. Multilaterally, G20 deliberations are focused on it. The G20 leaders’ summit due in Delhi in September is expected to continue with the formulae crafted at the last three summits, including the need for equitable access to pandemic countermeasures and to strengthen global health governance. India must enhance the formulae by putting its health technology, affordable pharma, and vaccine diplomacy to enhance global preparedness for the next pandemic.
The adverse impact of COVID-19 on the world economy has been staggering. The World Bank warns of a global recession in 2023. The long-term adverse consequences for people in emerging economies and developing economies are already severe and will be more so in the future. As G20 chair, and especially through the finance track, India has a key role in steering the global economy toward recovery, stability and equity.
The climate crisis will accelerate if developing countries, dependent on an adequate flow of funds and technologies to meet global targets, are not supported by developed countries which have failed to deliver. India’s task is to persuade the G7 countries to step up and match their commitments with actions. If Delhi succeeds, it will produce a remarkable presidency.
The Russia-Ukraine war will be a year old in February. Clearly, the war should be stopped, and a negotiated settlement crafted. Calls for India’s intervention have so far produced tepid results. Russia’s President Putin has now publicly called for a peaceful solution, and Ukraine’s President Zelensky has presented a 10-point peace plan. The onus is on the US to decide if its goals can be achieved through diplomacy, or if there will be more bloodshed before the action shifts from battlefields to conference rooms. India needs to push the peace pedal to end the war soon. If the conflict ends during the current G20 presidency, the Delhi summit will be crowned with glory, making 2023 a historic year.
Finally, the China factor will shape the year. No one bets on an early resolution of the India-China border issue. Some experts have predicted an escalation in India-China tensions during the summer months. India would prefer some normalcy and stability in relations with China, an essential requirement for the optimal success of the double presidencies. So should China, given the serious political and economic challenges it faces at home, and its declining stock internationally. Beijing has sent out some feelers recently through an important Track II channel with Gateway House in Mumbai. However, it is risky to speculate about China’s complex motivations. Whether the two nations initiate some form of political-level communication to craft a modus vivendi will be watched with interest.
Double presidencies and several elections in India’s neighborhood such as in Maldives and Pakistan will mark 2023. Also, nine states of the Indian Union will go through assembly polls, demonstrating the country’s democracy in full action. If the country manages to tackle all these challenges deftly, as it is expected to, then on the arrival of December to wrap up 2023, India may be viewed as a near-great power, an international bridge-builder, and a successful democracy marching confidently on the path of progress.
Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow for Foreign Policy Studies, Gateway House, and a former ambassador.
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