by Krutika Patti and Adam Schreck
NEW DELHI — G20 leaders paid their respects at a memorial site dedicated to Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi on Sunday, a day after the forum added a new member and managed to reach agreement on a range of issues but softened their language on Russia’s war in Ukraine.
India, this year’s host of the Group of 20 rich and developing nations, ended the first day of the summit with what were seen as diplomatic wins despite pointed disagreements among powerful members, particularly over the war in Ukraine.
As the weekend’s first session began, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that the group was adding the African Union as a member — part of the Indian leader’s drive to uplift the Global South.
A few hours later, India announced that it was able to get the disparate group to sign off on a final statement, but only after softening language on the contentious issue of Russia’s war in Ukraine.
It also unveiled an ambitious plan with the United States, the European Union and others to build a rail and shipping corridorlinking India with the Middle East and Europe to strengthen economic growth and political cooperation.
With those major agenda items taken care of, Canada’s Justin Trudeau, Australia’s Anthony Albanese and Japan’s Fumio Kishida, among others, shook hands Sunday and posed for photos with Modi as they arrived at the Rajghat memorial site in New Delhi. Modi gifted the leaders shawls made of khadi, a handspun fabric that was promoted by Gandhi during India’s independence movement against the British.
Some leaders — including British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and last year’s G20 host President Joko Widodo of Indonesia — walked to the memorial barefoot in a customary show of respect. Many others, including U.S. President Joe Biden, wore slippers that are routinely offered to visitors as they walked over wet ground spotted with puddles from heavy rain.
The leaders stood before wreaths placed around the memorial, which features an eternal flame and was draped with orange and yellow marigold garlands.
Notably, the one reserved for Modi identified him as president of “Bharat,” an ancient Sanskrit name championed by his Hindu nationalist supporters that has shot to prominence as the summit approached.
Earlier in the day, Sunak and his wife Akshata Murthy separately took time to visit and offer prayers at the Akshardham Temple, one of Delhi’s most prominent Hindu houses of worship.
In the months leading up to the leaders’ summit in New Delhi, India had been unable to find agreement on the wording about Ukraine, with Russia and China objecting even to language that they had agreed to at the 2022 G20 summit in Bali.
This year’s final statement, released a day before the formal close of the summit, highlighted the “human suffering and negative added impacts of the war in Ukraine,” but did not mention Russia’s invasion directly. It cited a United Nations charter, saying “all states must refrain from the threat or use of force to seek territorial acquisition against the territorial integrity and sovereignty or political independence of any state. The use or threat of use of nuclear weapons is inadmissible.”
By contrast, the Bali declaration cited a U.N. resolution condemning “the aggression by the Russian Federation against Ukraine,” and said “most members strongly condemned the war in Ukraine.”
Western leaders — who have pushed for a stronger rebuke of Russia’s actions in past G20 meetings — still called the consensus a success, and praised India’s nimble balancing act. If the G20 hadn’t produced a final communique, it would have been the first time and a blow to the group’s prestige.
Nazia Hussain, an associate research fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said the statement showed a “softening of the language on the war in Ukraine.”
Oleg Nikolenko, spokesman for Ukraine’s foreign ministry, said his government was grateful to the countries that tried to include strong wording, but that the “G20 has nothing to be proud of,” suggesting among other things that the war “in Ukraine,” should have been referred to as the war “against Ukraine.”
Though the Ukraine wording was not as strong as many Western leaders wanted, what was critical was that everyone had signed off on the text, said a senior EU official who only spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity so as to talk frankly about the discussions.
The EU diplomat said the language of the text could help bolster the West’s position in the long run, noting that Russia, China and all the developing countries in the group — including some that have been less critical of Russia — had signed off on every line. That, the official added, meant that it is clear to emerging economics as well that “Russia is the cause of this war and Russia is the one that is prolonging it.”
India had made directing more attention to addressing the needs of the developing world a focus of the summit, and organizers worked hard to keep the summit from being dominated by the war in Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed last year’s G20 summit in Bali by video and stole the show with an in-person appearance at the gathering of leaders of the G7 rich democracies— all of whom are members of the G20 — in Hiroshima earlier this year.
Modi made a point of not inviting Zelenskyy to participate in this year’s event, though it is impossible to decouple many issues, such as food and energy security, from the war in Ukraine.
Scholz told reporters it was significant that Russia had signed on to the agreement that mentioned the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.
Russian negotiator Svetlana Lukash described the discussions on the Ukraine-related part of the final statement as “very difficult,” adding that the agreed text had a “balanced view” of the situation, Russian media reported.
Also at the summit, India launched a global biofuel alliance with 19 countries including the U.S. and Brazil. The fuels, made from agricultural produce or organic waste, have gained popularity in recent decades as a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels.
The G20 includes Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Turkey, the United Kingdom, the U.S and the EU. Spain holds a permanent guest seat.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and China’s leader Xi Jinping opted not to come this year, ensuring no tough face-to-face conversations with their American and European counterparts.