The G20 Foreign Ministers Meeting (FMM) in Delhi on 1–2 March was a milestone for India’s G20 presidency. The participation of almost all foreign ministers lent it weight, and the host nation, which made meticulous preparations, hoped the meeting might produce a perfect outcome. This did not happen: no joint statement; no family photo; and much acrimony inside the conference room due to serious differences over Ukraine. To understand why, it is essential to look below the surface.
The FMMs have been evolving over the years. Foreign ministers’ deliberations are autonomous of the two tracks of the G20, namely the Finance and Sherpa tracks, but their discussions encompass some of the most important themes of the G20 with diplomatic and political dimensions. Once the G20 was elevated to the heads of government level in 2008, the foreign ministers began carving out a role for themselves. From 2012, when they held their first meeting under the Mexican presidency, they met independently almost every year, except in 2021. In 2021, they held a joint meeting with development ministers to produce the Matera Declaration focusing on food security and poverty alleviation, under the Italian Presidency. Then, Ukraine stole their attention. The first FMM post-Ukraine meeting in Bali last year failed to produce an outcome document.
In this context, the FMM in Delhi had a challenging task. Barring those who were busy over-glorifying the Indian presidency, it was apparent to informed insiders that a joint statement may be difficult to secure. The finance ministers’ meeting in Bengaluru witnessed Russia, backed by China, resiling from the agreed positions on Ukraine. Nevertheless, Indian officials tried hard to bridge the gap dividing the two camps: the western and other countries insisted on sticking to the Bali Summit’s paras on Ukraine, while Russia and China demanded their deletion. This left the host with no choice but to forego the communiqué and issue the ‘Chair’s Summary and Outcome Document’, indicating clearly that, barring the two controversial paras where the split was 18 (for) and 2 (against), all countries agreed to the rest of the text. This enabled External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar to claim correctly that agreement was reached on “95%” of the content. This was no mean achievement.
The Chair’s summary is a substantial document dealing with a dozen critical issues. It contains a strong plea for “reinvigorated multilateralism and reform” that makes the UN more responsive to the entire membership and helps in implementing the 2030 agenda. The foreign ministers have placed their hopes on the next three crucial conferences – SDG Summit (September 2023), COP 28 (December 2023), and the Summit of the Future (2024) – where multilateralism has a chance to redeem itself. The ministers articulated their support for increased cooperation between the G20 and regional partners, “including African partners.” Formulations on food and energy security, climate change, biodiversity, and global health are crisp and interspersed with references to financial commitments by developed countries, where progress has been poor. India’s imprint is visible in the portions relating to counter-terrorism, counter-narcotics and disaster reduction.
What transpired on the FMM’s sidelines and the day after, saw more progress. An informal discussion between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was their first personal contact since the outbreak of the Ukraine war. They reiterated their known positions, but the fact that they began talking on Indian soil has some significance. The foreign ministers of China and India had a formal, 45-minute-long meeting – their first after a year’s gap. Jaishankar described the bilateral relationship as “abnormal” and emphasised the need for addressing the real and urgent issues of restoring peace and tranquility on the border. Qin Gang, the new Chinese foreign minister, spoke about the need for better communication and greater cooperation while maintaining that the border issue should be put in “the proper place in bilateral relations.” Clearly, divergent approaches are in operation, but the beginning of a dialogue is always better than its absence when it concerns the ties between Asia’s two strongest powers.
The meeting of Quad foreign ministers (US, India, Japan and Australia) on 3 March resulted in a joint statement. The members are forging deeper cooperation in multiple domains to secure the vision of a “free and open Indo-Pacific, which is inclusive and resilient.” They keep on insisting that the Quad is for cooperation and is not against anyone. But in today’s turbulent world, that message is not hitting home. Both the Russian and Chinese governments criticised the Quad, its perceived confrontational approach, and its decision to hold the ministerial meeting after the FMM of G20.
Finally, two brief impressions from the Raisina Dialogue on March 4. One, the Russian foreign minister came through as an angry and assertive man, ready to take on the world, including the Indian moderator. Two, EU leaders’ assertion that UN reform can wait till after the Ukraine war ends and the world overcomes the challenge of climate change, was hugely disappointing to the Indian audience.
This gloom is avoidable. Indian diplomacy should get into overdrive now, with creativity and persistence so that the G20 Leaders’ Summit in September produces a meaningful Delhi Declaration. A chair’s summary will not do.
Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow for Foreign Policy Studies, Gateway House, and a former ambassador.
A version of this article appeared in Hindustan Times.