This year’s annual G-20 summit held in Osaka, Japan, offered an expansive stage for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to kickstart his second international innings. If his first outing after the general elections — which gave him a massive mandate — to Maldives and Sri Lanka was about India’s maritime neighbourhood, the three-day sojourn in Osaka provided an occasion to engage many of his global peers in multiple formats and address burning international questions. Launched in 2008 to cope with the global financial crisis, the G-20 has now become a forum for the discussion of all major international issues and a venue for bilateral exchanges between the world’s top leaders.
Modi’s meeting with the US President, Donald Trump, underlined the essential resilience of India’s strategic partnership with the United States. It disproved the recent narrative that the relationship is in a crisis amidst a large number of contentions including trade, 5G, Iran and Russia. Trump’s tweet, hours before he met Modi, demanding that Delhi withdraw its retaliatory tariffs against American duties on steel and aluminium imports, seemed to confirm the new volatility in bilateral relations. Official readouts from Modi’s meeting with Trump suggested a more business-like discussion. The two leaders agreed to initiate high-level talks to resolve trade disputes and discussed potential collaboration on 5G technologies. The discussion on the Gulf offered the PM an opportunity to lay out India’s interests in oil price stability and its contributions to regional security. Besides the bilateral meeting with Trump, Modi also sat down for a brief trilateral chat with the US President and the Japanese PM, Shinzo Abe.
Even as he sought to institutionalise the trilateral engagement with the US and Japan, Modi met with Presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin in a trilateral format and again, in a broader BRICS format, with the presidents of Brazil and South Africa. This must not, however, be seen as some kind of a return to non-alignment. It merely reflects India’s necessary pragmatism amid the current fluidity in great power relations. This was reflected in the effort by Xi and Trump to pause their trade war. Equally important was the fact that Russia, China and Brazil were happy to thunder against the US at the BRICS forum, but had no problem joining the Osaka Declaration on cross-border data flows sponsored by Japan. India decided to absent itself at the discussion on data along with Indonesia and South Africa. India’s sherpa to the G-20, Suresh Prabhu, would not explain the decision except stating that the reasons for India’s abstention had been conveyed to the Japanese leadership. On the face of it, the abstention is of a piece with India’s recent drift to so-called “data nationalism”. However, given the growing centrality of the digital economy for India’s growth and Modi’s visible isolation at Osaka, Delhi must take a fresh look at the assumptions behind its current approaches to data governance.