East-West showdown looms at G-20 FMs meeting in India

NEW DELHI — Fractured East-West relations over Russia’s war in Ukraine and increasing concerns about China’s global aspirations are set to dominate what is expected to be a highly contentious meeting of foreign ministers from the world’s largest industrialized and developing nations this week in India.

The increasingly bitter rift between the United States and its allies on one side and Russia and China on the other appears likely to widen further as top diplomats from the Group of 20 gather in the Indian capital on Thursday. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang and their Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov will all be in attendance and battling for support from non-aligned members of the group.

While they will all be in the same room together, there was no sign that Blinken, who spent two days in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan warning Central Asia about the threat Russia poses before traveling to New Delhi, would sit down with either. Blinken said he had no plans to meet with them individually but expected to see them in group settings.

As at most international events since last year, the split over the war in Ukraine and its impact on global energy and food security will overshadow the proceedings. But as the conflict has dragged on over the past 12 months, the divide has grown and now threatens to become a principal irritant in U.S.-China ties that were already on the rocks for other reasons.

A Chinese peace proposal for Ukraine that has drawn praise from Russia but dismissals from the West has done nothing to improve matters as U.S. officials have repeatedly accused China in recent days of considering the provision of weapons to Russia for use in the war.

Those accusations have exacerbated the already poor state of affairs between the world’s two largest economies over Taiwan, human rights, Hong Kong and the South China Sea that took another hit last month with the U.S. discovery and then shoot-down of a Chinese surveillance balloon in American airspace that resulted in Blinken postponing a much-anticipated trip to Beijing.

A hastily arranged meeting between Blinken and China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, on the margins of the Munich Security Conference two weeks ago yielded no tangible results. And recently renewed U.S. suggestions that the COVID-19 pandemic could have been the result of a Chinese lab leak have made the situation worse.

Blinken again warned China against transferring lethal military equipment to Russia, saying there would be significant consequences for such actions. And, he said the Chinese peace plan for Ukraine rang hollow given its focus on “sovereignty” compared to its own recent actions.

“If China was genuinely serious about this … it would have been spending all of the last year working in support of the restoration of Ukraine’s full sovereignty,” he told reporters in Tashkent. “And of course, it’s been doing the opposite.”

“China can’t have it both ways,” Blinken said. “It can’t be putting itself out as a force for peace in public, while in one way or another, it continues to fuel the flames of this fire that Vladimir Putin started.”

In the meantime, Moscow has been unrelenting in pushing its view that the West, led by the U.S., is trying to destroy Russia.

Ahead of the meeting, the Russian Foreign Ministry slammed U.S. policies, saying that Lavrov and his delegation would use the G-20 to “focus on the attempts by the West to take revenge for the inevitable disappearance of the levers of dominance from its hands.”

“The destructive policy of the U.S. and its allies has already put the world on the brink of a disaster, provoked a rollback in socio-economic development and seriously aggravated the situation of the poorest countries,” it said in a statement. “The entire world is suffering from the cynical revelry of illegal sanctions, the artificial breakup of cross-border supply chains, the imposition of notorious price ceilings and, in effect, from attempts to steal natural resources.”

British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly, meanwhile, said there were no plans to spend all of the time in the meetings condemning Russia.

“We are not trying to turn this G-20 into a criticism of Russia,” he told The Associated Press, adding that the world is already aware of the Western position “with regards to Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine.”

“There are many important things we need to discuss and we’re going to work with India to make the G-20 a success,” Cleverly said.

Still, the antagonism has left G-20 host India in the unenviable position of trying to reconcile clearly irreconcilable differences.

The meeting is particularly crucial for India’s hopes to use its chairmanship of the group to leverage its position on the global stage and adopt a neutral stance on Ukraine in order to focus on issues of importance to developing nations like rising inflation, debt stress, health, climate change and food and energy security.

“I think those are equally important issues to focus on, of course along with the Russia-Ukraine conflict,” said Indian Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra, the most senior bureaucrat in the foreign ministry.

But just last week, India was forced to issue a chair’s summary at the conclusion of the G-20 finance ministers’ meeting after Russia and China objected to a joint communique that retained language on the war in Ukraine drawn directly from the declaration from last year’s G-20 summit in Bali, Indonesia.

India hopes to avert a repeat of that, but prospects appear dim.

“We will see how it goes forward. It is a repetition of the Bali declaration,” said Indian foreign ministry spokesman Arindam Bagchi. “Obviously, we stand by that declaration. Our prime minister was there. There is no question of not agreeing with that text. We are with that text.”

So far, though, India has refrained from directly criticizing Russia, its major Cold War-era ally, while increasing imports of Russian oil, even as it has increasingly faced pressure to take a firm stand on Moscow. India has also abstained from voting in U.N. resolutions that condemn the Ukraine invasion.

“India’s messaging has been clear and consistent: It’s not about to criticize Russia, but it strongly opposes the war and supports all efforts to bring it to an end,” said Michael Kugelman, director of the Wilson Center’s South Asia Institute.

“The West would prefer it go further, and Russia would prefer it say less, but each side has accepted New Delhi’s position, and India’s relations with both sides have remained strong throughout the war,” he said.

This story corrects Michael Kugelman’s affiliation to director of Wilson Center’s South Asia Institute.