New Trade Routes, Old Challenges: India’s Diplomatic Milestone at the G20

Glimpse of Bharat Mandapam in Pragati Maidan ahead of the upcoming G20 Summit, in New Delhi on September 06, 2023., cc PHOTO DIVISION (PIB), modified,

The recent G20 summit in New Delhi stands out as a defining event in the annals of global diplomacy, culminating in a collective statement that exceeded expectations in both its scope and unity. This achievement is all the more remarkable when viewed against the multifaceted backdrop that framed the summit, which included fluctuating economic conditions, a growing ecological emergency, and, crucially, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Adding to the significance of the event was the unprecedented decision to grant the African Union a permanent seat in the G20, signaling a paradigmatic shift in the forum’s approach to international governance.

In this complicated environment, India didn’t just play the role of host nation, but also demonstrated deft diplomatic skills in guiding a heterogeneous assembly of countries towards a common understanding. This feat takes on added significance in a contemporary landscape where the tenets of multilateralism seem to be eroding as countries increasingly focus on national agendas at the expense of shared goals.



Founded in 1999 as a countermeasure to the financial turmoil of the late 20th century, the Group of 20 (G20) has become a central platform for global economic discourse. Comprising 19 nations plus the European Union, the G20 now accounts for nearly 85% of the world’s GDP and nearly two-thirds of its population. Because of its expansive reach, the forum has broadened its scope from initially coordinating macroeconomic policies to addressing a wide range of issues of global concern.

A landmark shift occurred at the recent summit in New Delhi, where the African Union was granted permanent membership status. This inclusion marks a watershed in the G20’s trajectory, signifying not only Africa’s growing relevance in international affairs, but also an expansion of the forum’s geographic and thematic dimensions. This development underscores a renewed commitment to inclusiveness and a diversification of viewpoints, thereby enhancing the G20’s ability to navigate complex global dilemmas.

Currently, the G20’s agenda has expanded to include issues such as sustainable growth, technological advances, labor dynamics, health care frameworks, and beyond. The forum’s importance has grown in addressing transnational needs such as environmental degradation, global security, and coordinated responses to crises, particularly the COVID-19 pandemic. The increasing focus on environmental issues within the G20 underscores the criticality of environmental sustainability as a linchpin of global economic and social stability.

Given their multiple functions, G20 summits often serve as credible indicators of international sentiment, reflecting existing geopolitical frictions, economic forecasts, and shared visions for the future. The New Delhi summit took place in this multifaceted and fluid context, which increased the significance of its decisions and guidelines.


Diplomatic Challenges

The diplomatic landscape leading up to the G20 summit in New Delhi was marked by a confluence of complexities and challenges that made the task of reaching a unified stance exceptionally difficult. One of the acute sources of tension was Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, an issue that polarized the forum’s members into distinct ideological camps. Coupled with diverging stances on climate change, economic sanctions, and global health, these issues significantly raised the diplomatic stakes.

A particularly noteworthy development was the absence of key leaders Xi Jinping of China and Vladimir Putin of Russia from the summit. This absence was not merely symbolic; it carried substantial diplomatic weight and had far-reaching implications. Their decision to abstain from attending could be seen as a calculated diplomatic move with multiple objectives.

Firstly, the absence of these leaders might be interpreted as an effort to avoid direct confrontation or accountability on contentious issues. For instance, Russia’s actions in Ukraine and China’s stance on various geopolitical matters are subjects of intense scrutiny and debate. By not attending, these leaders sidestepped immediate diplomatic pressure, allowing for more indirect forms of engagement or, possibly, non-engagement.

Secondly, their absence could be seen as a form of implicit critique of the prevailing international order and the efficacy of platforms like the G20. By choosing not to participate, Xi and Putin may be signaling a discontent with the way international dialogue is currently structured or the topics that are given precedence, thereby questioning the G20’s role as a forum for equitable global discussion.

Finally, the absence of these key figures raised questions about the shifting landscape of global alliances and power structures. It spotlighted the increasing multipolarity in international relations and the necessity for forums like the G20 to adapt and address these evolving dynamics effectively.

Despite these challenges, and against all odds, the summit concluded with a joint declaration, an outcome that defied expectations.


India’s Role

India’s staging of the recent G20 summit in New Delhi marks a pivotal chapter in its diplomatic annals and underscores its maturing role in international affairs. Adding a layer of complexity to India’s hosting duties was the presence of key international figures of Indian origin, including Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, World Bank Group President Ajay Banga, and Gita Gopinath, First Deputy Managing Director of the IMF. The participation of these individuals goes beyond mere symbolism. It attests to the considerable clout of the Indian diaspora in shaping global politics and economic architecture.

Another important facet to consider is the importance the United States attaches to India in the midst of the so-called “New Cold War,” a period of great power competition. As the U.S. grapples with China’s rising influence, its relationship with India assumes strategic importance. The G20 summit provided a prism through which to examine these evolving dynamics. India’s delicate balancing act between its historical ties to Russia, its strategic alignment with the United States, and its intricate relationship with China places it at the center of this shifting geopolitical tableau.

From a diplomatic standpoint, India showed great finesse in maneuvering through complicated international scenarios, especially in handling the absence of leaders such as Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin. India was able to maintain its strategic imperatives while fostering constructive discourse among the remaining participants, demonstrating its agility and resilience in ever-changing diplomatic contexts.

The summit also served as a platform for India to showcase its potential as a mediator in global disputes. This was evident in its role in forging consensus on divisive issues such as Russia’s activities in Ukraine, further enhancing India’s stature as a possible diplomatic conduit in a fragmenting geopolitical arena.

Finally, the summit provided an opportunity for India to articulate its global governance aspirations, as evidenced by discussions around a potential new trade corridor to Europe, tentatively dubbed the “New Spice Road.”


The New Spice Road: An Alternative to BRI

In a development that holds the potential to significantly alter the contours of international geopolitics and trade, the G20 summit included discussions on a proposed trade corridor between India and Europe. While official documents did not name the project, it has been tentatively dubbed the “New Spice Road” by commentators and analysts. This unofficial nomenclature marks a bold conceptual entry for India into the domain of global economic infrastructure, serving as a potential counterpoint to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

The implications of this so-called New Spice Road extend beyond mere economic considerations and delve into geopolitical realms. Firstly, the initiative reflects India’s broader foreign policy aspirations, encapsulating its ambition to be a pivotal actor not just in diplomatic circles but also in global economic configurations. By fostering an alternative to the BRI, India is signaling its readiness to be more proactive in influencing global economic norms and structures.

Secondly, the proposed corridor could serve as a viable option for countries that are cautious about or reluctant to engage with China’s BRI. The initiative has the potential to attract nations seeking to diversify their economic alliances and reduce dependency on a single dominant entity, particularly in light of ongoing concerns about the debt obligations and political leverage associated with certain BRI projects.

Thirdly, the initiative also serves as a strategic geopolitical maneuver aimed at counterbalancing China’s expanding influence, especially in Asia and Africa. By proposing an alternative, India has the opportunity to recalibrate the geopolitical balance, or at least present a substantive counter-narrative to China’s ambitions for global economic integration.

Fourthly, the New Spice Road enables India to leverage its historical trade routes and long-standing cultural affiliations with Europe. The concept modernizes the legacy of the historic Spice Route, which connected the Indian subcontinent to Europe, and could serve as a soft power asset to garner support for the project.

Finally, the proposal may have broader implications for the structure of global governance and international institutions. Should the initiative gain traction, it could necessitate changes in international trade regulations, affect the policy orientations of global financial organizations, and perhaps inspire similar projects by other emerging economies.


Geopolitical Implications

The successful conclusion of the G20 summit in New Delhi has far-reaching implications that extend beyond the immediate outcomes and set the stage for ongoing and future diplomatic endeavors.

Firstly, the achievement of a consensus among member nations serves as a compelling testament to the efficacy of diplomatic negotiations, even in an increasingly polarized and factionalized global environment. T

Secondly, a groundbreaking development occurred with the inclusion of the African Union as a standing member. This decision not only broadens the geographical scope of the G20 but also brings a more diversified set of perspectives to the table. It signals a noteworthy shift in global governance structures, recognizing the growing importance of Africa in international affairs. This inclusion raises important questions about the future and effectiveness of multilateral organizations like the G20, particularly in an era marked by rising nationalism and unilateral actions.

Thirdly, the summit’s outcomes prompt serious contemplation about the role and future of multilateral forums. The success of the event underscores the continuing importance of international cooperation in addressing complex global challenges, even as the geopolitical landscape evolves to include new forms of competition, such as the “New Cold War.”

Fourthly, the summit underscored the urgent need for “bolder action” in confronting global crises, most notably the conflict in Ukraine and the climate emergency. While the consensus is a diplomatic achievement, it also serves as a stark reminder of the limitations inherent in international diplomacy, emphasizing the chasm between diplomatic rhetoric and actionable commitments.

Fifthly, the proposal for a “New Spice Road” suggests a potential realignment in global economic frameworks. This initiative could be indicative of a larger trend where emerging economies like India are stepping into roles not just as rule-followers but as rule-makers in the sphere of international politics.

Finally, the summit brings into sharp focus the intricate complexities of modern alliances and rivalries. The geopolitical calculus is increasingly multi-polar, featuring shifting allegiances and strategic partnerships. The role of middle powers and emerging economies, exemplified by India’s leadership in this summit, has become more critical in shaping these dynamics.


Climate Change Compromises

While the G20 summit in New Delhi was able to forge consensus on a number of issues, it fell far short of eliciting transformative commitments on climate action. The agreement reached on this front seemed to be characterized more by a spirit of compromise than by ambitious or visionary commitments. Such an outcome not only reveals a general reluctance on the part of world leaders to take decisive action, but also raises serious questions about the effectiveness of these multilateral meetings in achieving substantial progress on the climate front.

First, the negotiated stance on climate change suggests that geopolitical factors, such as the ongoing Ukraine conflict and emerging great power rivalry, may have eclipsed environmental imperatives. The lukewarm commitments suggest that in the face of immediate geopolitical crises, long-term existential challenges such as climate change may have taken a back seat. This ordering of priorities is a troubling paradox, given that geopolitical stability, the ultimate goal for many leaders, could be threatened by unchecked environmental degradation.

Second, the results call into question the dynamics of international cooperation on climate issues. Are the pledges made at these summits merely the minimum acceptable to the most reluctant parties? If that’s the case, what are the implications for achieving the global goals outlined in frameworks like the Paris Agreement?

Third, the lack of bold commitments on climate underscores an inherent tension between national prerogatives and global imperatives. Each participating country has its own set of economic considerations, domestic political pressures, and strategic calculations, all of which can act as barriers to the adoption of bolder global climate initiatives.

Finally, the results of the summit call for a critical re-evaluation of the structure and effectiveness of such international forums. If the existing model of multilateral negotiations is incapable of generating the urgent action needed to address climate change, then alternative strategies and structures must be considered. This could mean adopting more localized or sector-specific agreements, or even extending invitations to non-state entities that may be more inclined to make bold commitments.

Back to Top


Lost your password?