This is a piece written looking at global developments from my temporary vantage point of being in New York for a fortnight. The 1961 Hollywood film Come September, starring Rock Hudson and Gina Lollobrigida was about an American billionaire spending September at his Italian villa. But in diplomacy September is the month when the United Nations opens its fresh annual session with a high level General Debate which the heads of state and government of its 193 members vie to attend.
This year, although the 77th session commences on September 13, the high level portion runs from September 20-26. The US President, as usual, will be the second speaker after Brazil on September 21. And then follow presidents or prime ministers of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC), called P-5. But the buzz that normally prevails in New York as the the city becomes fully functional after Labor Day is missing. The main reason is that the Ukraine War has pitted P-5 members against each other. This causes the role of the United Nations to be negated as the UNSC is stymied by internal wrangling and geostrategic cracks.
Resultantly, Russian President Vladimir Putin, treated as a pariah by the western powers, is giving UNGA a miss. It is also unlikely that the Chinese President Xi Jinping would arrive for the summit, as he has not travelled abroad since Covid outbreak in early 2020. He is still seething over US Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. This was the first high level political visit in decades to the island nation that China claims. Britain is just anointing the new prime minister Liz Truss, after a bruising contest with her Indian origin rival. As a former foreign minister she may attend the UNGA session.
On UNGA’s agenda are two important plenaries. September 26 marks the International Day for the Complete Elimination of Nuclear Weapons. This assumes importance against the backdrop of Russia threatening obliquely to use nuclear weapons in the Ukraine War. September 21 is the 30th anniversary of adoption of the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities. Coincidently the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ delayed report on Xinjiang is now available. Even in India a controversy arose over the treatment of Rohingyas, with a flip-flop by the union government on treating them humanely or targeting them as illegal intruders. Globally there has been regression on this count, leaving the UN unable to seek accountability. This becomes impossible when a P-5 member is at fault.
A new Cold War is gathering pace between the Russia-China axis opposing the US, its allies like NATO members and new close associates like India. India is attempting to keep both camps humoured. For instance it is participating in Russia-led “Vostok-2022” military exercise in eastern Russia. The US may resent this as it lends legitimacy to Putin’s Russia when the western powers are sanctioning it.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is also likely to skip the UNGA session, but is expected to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit on September 15-16 at Samarkand, Uzbekistan. The eight-member organisation will enable Russian president V. Putin to rub shoulders with Xi and Modi, besides leaders of four Central Asian nations, Pakistan and Iran. The Indian participation again may not amuse the western powers as it enables Putin to show he is not isolated, despite the West’s sanctions.
The SCO agenda proposed by Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, its current chair, besides the standard phrase about enhancing its potential talks of ensuring peace and stability, reducing poverty and enabling food security. Ironically the inflationary spiral hitting global food and energy prices has been exacerbated by Russia starting the Ukraine War. SCO would provide Russia and China the stage to pillory the west. Former has a litany of grouses against the west for ignoring Russian security concerns in Europe. China has exaggerated claims in its maritime neighbourhood in the South and East China seas.
Considering the still unsettled condition of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh and Chinese unwillingness to restore status quo ante, the Indian attendance at prime ministerial level has questionable utility. But it would certainly heighten US doubts about Indian reliability. India benefiting from discounted oil purchases from Russia is one thing. but imagining that China can be softened by pandering to its regional aspirations would be a mistake.
President Xi Jinping is preparing for the Chinese Communist Party’s Congress on October 16, when he is expected to obtain an unprecedented third term. With evidence of Chinese economic slowdown mounting Xi may have no option but to maintain a jingoistic stance. There is danger in trying to play both sides in a polarised world. Losing a friend’s confidence without gaining the antagonist’s goodwill is not great diplomacy. Thus it may end less happily for India than the movie Come September did for Rock Hudson.
The writer is former secretary, Ministry of External Affairs