The year 2022 ends in some ways as it began, with at least two obvious challenges. One is the Ukraine war. Before Russia began its military campaign on Feb 24, at a Sino-Russian summit a “no-limits” partnership was pledged. It is unknown if Chinese President Xi Jinping realised then that Russia was about to drag them into a protracted war against NATO. The two leaders again had a tete-a-tete on Dec 30.
The second challenge is the Covid epidemic. The year began with the world finally beginning to get a handle on the deadly disease as mass vaccination and herd immunity due to exposure curbed its spread. China had been the outlier to this approach by using the trace-and-lockdown method. But popular protests against draconian lockdowns and economic slowdown due to supply-chain disruption forced the Chinese government to reverse course in December. Thus, ironically, the last nation undergoing mass infections today is the one from where the disease spread in late 2019.
These two developments — Covid and the Ukraine war — have shaped geopolitics over the last two years. The war has gone horribly wrong for Russia as its anticipated quick decapitation of the regime of President Volodymyr Zelensky failed miserably. More than half of the area occupied by Russia post-February has been recaptured by Ukraine. Disrupted export of grains from Russia and Ukraine as well as supply of oil and gas by Russia has caused global inflation in food and energy prices. At the end of 2022 the situation remains as grim as at its start.
Inflation has caused chaos in many developing nations. The popular protests in Sri Lanka upended the nepotistic stranglehold of the Rajapaksa clan on political power. Despite the 22nd Constitutional Amendment in October, which curbs Presidential powers and introduces anti-corruption safeguards, the nation remains unstable. Similarly in Pakistan, populist-nationalist leader Imran Khan lost his Prime Ministership when economic chaos led to his sponsors in the military turning against him and some supporting groups defecting. The resulting churn is still ongoing and is unlikely to settle until the national elections in the latter half of 2023. In Nepal a surprise outcome of the elections has been the post-election coalition amongst formerly quarrelling rival communist parties. Consequently Pushpa Kamal Dahal, also known as Prachanda, is now Prime Minister, after abandoning his electoral ally the Nepali Congress.
Elsewhere in the world, the tussle between liberal democratic forces and right-leaning populist-autocratic leaders has had mixed results in 2022. The Economist magazine writes that “in much of the world liberal values are embattled”. In Brazil, the largest democracy in Latin America, the right-leaning Jair Bolsonaro was defeated by left-of-centre former president Luis Inacio Lula da Silva. In Italy on the other hand the radically right-wing Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy won power. In Israel the corruption-tainted former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recaptured power with unsavoury extreme right-fringe elements as allies, who want to expand settlements in the occupied West Bank. This raises the possibility of rising tensions with not only Palestine but also neighbours like Jordan and Egypt with which Israel has peace agreements.
All these developments can no longer be ignored, as India has the G20 presidency in 2023. Moreover, as the recent provocative intrusion by Chinese troops in the Tawang sector indicates, national interests will be predominant, as the next Lok Sabha election is barely a year away. Thus the latest China-Russia parleys at summit level assume significance. According to President Putin the Sino-Russian relations are “a model of cooperation between major powers in the 21st century”. He added that the two nations agree on the “causes, courses and logic of the ongoing transformation of the geopolitical landscape”. Some may be discounted as hyperbole needed to project that Russia is not diplomatically isolated. However, China’s English mouthpiece the Global Times also warned that the US should not cheer Ukraine into conflict. China is both concerned that the Ukraine war should not seriously impact its relations with western nations, but also happy that it would keep Russia dependent on it for military and financial aid. The naming of the Chinese ambassador to the US as their next foreign minister recognises that China’s relations with the U.S. shall remain a priority.
For India’s G20 chairmanship to succeed, all these challenges must not become hurdles. If the Ukraine war does not reach a ceasefire it is difficult to imagine how Western leaders would attend if Putin shows up for the summit. Some are arguing that India could mediate, especially after PM Narendra Modi has spoken to the Ukrainian president. History teaches us that wars do not end unless one side wins or both reach a point of exhaustion. Neither appears likely before next summer. The danger also lurks that Chinese obduracy in combating Covid via lockdowns, and now sudden relaxation, may allow the virus to mutate dangerously. Thus, 2023 brings a mixture of hope and danger.
The writer is former secretary, Ministry of External Affairs
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