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  Opinion   Columnists  12 Sep 2023  Sunanda K. Datta-Ray | Modi, Biden had the last laugh as Xi stayed away

Sunanda K. Datta-Ray | Modi, Biden had the last laugh as Xi stayed away

Sunanda K Datta-Ray is a senior journalist, columnist and author.
Published : Sep 13, 2023, 12:00 am IST
Updated : Sep 13, 2023, 12:00 am IST

Hyderabad’s Nizam wouldn’t have been gallivanting elsewhere during Operation Polo, would he?

Prime minister Narendra Modi with US President Joe Biden. (File Image : PTI)
 Prime minister Narendra Modi with US President Joe Biden. (File Image : PTI)

By skipping the 18th Group of 20 summit in New Delhi, China’s President Xi Jinping may have intended to snub Prime Minister Narendra Modi and outwit US President Joe Biden who dares to deny advanced computing and artificial intelligence capabilities to the Chinese military and surveillance state. But Mr Biden’s was the last laugh when he flew from New Delhi to Hanoi, where Nguyen Phu Trong, general secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam, China’s ancient adversary, promoted his country’s relationship with the United States to the highest level of “comprehensive strategic partnership”.

Watching from New Delhi, Mr Modi may have seen the Hanoi rapprochement as another manifestation of the “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” (the world is one family) mantra that he intones. But when he says the Upanishads sloka represents India’s foreign policy and inspires international jamborees, he surely means aspiration rather than accomplished fact. The absence at Jakarta’s East Asian summit and New Delhi’s G-20 of both Mr Xi and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin reminded everyone that the global community is as riven today by feuds and factions as any Hindu undivided family in the Srivijaya Empire which Indonesia’s first President, Sukarno, claimed as the first Negara Indonesia, or Indonesian state.

International conferences being all about image, Mr Modi’s invitation to the African Union to join the G-20 as a full member empowers him to speak for dozens of countries stretching from the Pacific islands to Africa and Asia. It was also tit-for-tat for the clout Mr Xi gained when Brics acquired six new members in Johannesburg. Mr Modi’s eve-of-summit agreement with Mr Biden to maintain a “free, open, inclusive and resilient Indo-Pacific” without mentioning the Quad or nuclear subs stole another march on China while the Delhi Declaration’s support for “territorial integrity and sovereignty” saved the G-20 from toppling off the Ukraine tightrope. Indians were hardly surprised when Mr Putin pleaded Russia’s “special military operation” there for missing the New Delhi meet. The host should also have known that the same reason would have kept away Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy even if he had been invited. Hyderabad’s Nizam wouldn’t have been gallivanting elsewhere during Operation Polo, would he?

Mr Modi must be equally interested in the AOIP (Asean Outlook on the Indo-Pacific) initiative that Indonesia sponsored at Asean’s 2019 summit, clarifying its position on regional cooperation, security and prosperity, as well as on not siding with major powers competing for regional influence. This didn’t go far enough in Jakarta for Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr, who dismissed the call for regional unity by Chinese Premier Li Qiang (standing in for Mr Xi) as meaningless and described China’s latest map featuring a 10-dash line that includes the coastal waters of several Southeast Asian countries as well as parts of northern and northeastern India as directly threatening Manila. Less outspoken Asean leaders agreed with their chairman, Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo, that the bloc should not be dragged into superpower rivalry.

Predictably, the Asian leaders avoided any outright criticism of China. But even the muted grumbling encouraged Washington’s hopes of wooing Afro-Asia through reformed international institutions like the World Bank that the US national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, contrasts with China’s “coercive and unsustainable lending through the Belt and Road Initiative.” The US-proposed shipping corridor from India to Europe via West Asia was another tit-for-tat. Aware that Sri Lanka’s 99-year lease of the Hambantota deep water port, the country’s second largest after Colombo, weighs heavily on Afro-Asian minds, Mr Sullivan promised action on matters ranging from climate to technology to prove the US “commitment to the G-20 as a forum that can actually deliver”. The White House has asked the US Congress for more funds for crisis relief and infrastructure building in poorer countries.

Missing Jakarta, Air Force One -- not to be confused with Mr Modi’s own sumptuous prime ministerial aircraft -- with the presidential Cadillac nicknamed “The Beast” and the armoured vehicles of Ground Force One in its hold, took Mr Biden to Fortress New Delhi, whose excellent Metro was partially restricted for the occasion. The action was in the capital’s glittering new Bharat Mandapam sprawling over 123 acres but not very felicitously dubbed India’s largest MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences, and Exhibitions) destination. The real mice -- India’s bewildered poor -- were in enforced purdah behind cloth curtains and tin screens or forced off roads and pavements, un-glimpsed by the visiting dignitaries.

Impressing foreigners has always been Afro-Asia’s priority. President Obama is reduced to a familiar “Barrack”. Even Nelson Mandela was proud to call Queen Elizabeth II “Elizabeth”. At another level of ingratiation, hundreds of gallons of fresh water were pumped into stagnant ponds along the roads that Queen Elizabeth II had used when she visited what was then still Calcutta. The mayor of Colombo’s mother, collecting driftwood on the beach, was herded into a truck when beggars were being concealed during the nonaligned nations’ summit.

The gossip was that if Mr Putin’s absence made Mr Biden’s triumph possible, Mr Xi’s absence transformed Mr Modi into the stellar attraction. The consequent burden on the respective number twos recalled Bangladesh’s former military ruler, Gen. H.M. Ershad, lamenting not having a Prime Minister to receive and see off dignitaries. “I am more busy than the US President” he told me in Dhaka, “I must keep running to the airport for every VIP!” US vice-president Kamala Harris, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and Chinese Premier Li Qiang had a hectic time standing in for the boss.

No such glory for India’s Amit Shah as Mr Modi lived up to his 56-inch chest boast by rushing back from Jakarta for more than 15 bilateral meetings over the weekend. Did that display of personal stamina enhance India’s standing? China’s Global Times noted acidly that what matters is whether India can reform an economic system that dates back from colonial times. “Without revolutionary reform, India cannot achieve revolutionary development.” With its billionaire population up from 145 to 161 and predicted to rise to 195 by 2027, does today’s India really care?

As for Mr Biden’s Hanoi halt, China’s Deng Xiaoping gloated after the 1979 invasion that Beijing had had to teach Vietnam a lesson. This time round, it’s China’s turn to learn something. For starters, it should be less cavalier about global events. Asean might be awed into silence but the G-20, representing 85 per cent of the world’s GDP and two-thirds of its population, isn’t dazzled by dictators. As Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told the group’s final session on Sunday under the “One Future” rubric: “multilateralism is yet alive”. He meant democracy, the only recipe for survival.

Tags: prime minister narendra modi, us president joe biden, 18th group of 20 summit, china’s president xi jinping