G20: Japan and South Korea's Foreign Ministers to Skip Meet

Ahead of the March 2 meeting, Russian and EU foreign ministers issued uncompromising statements that they would strongly reiterate their positions on Ukraine.

New Delhi: Even as there is uncertainty about a joint statement after the gathering of the G20 foreign ministers in Bengaluru due to differences over Ukraine, the foreign ministers of Japan and South Korea are skipping the meet due to “domestic obligations”, while China and Russia announced their ministerial visits.

Just two days before the foreign ministers’ meeting, Japanese news agency Kyodo, citing a ruling party source, reported on Tuesday morning that foreign minister Yoshimasa Hayashi would not travel to India due to a conflict with his parliamentary schedule. Twenty-four hours after this report, Japan officially confirmed that Hayashi won’t be coming to Delhi. In a statement, the country said deputy foreign minister Kenji Yamada will be attending the G20 meeting.

The absence of Hayashi will be notable, as Japan is not only a close friend of India, but also holds the annual chair of the G7 group this year. Since last year’s summit, there had been a constant refrain in bilateral statements that the simultaneous chairmanship of the G7 by Japan and G20 by India would lead to a closer synergy between the two countries.

A Japanese researcher at Washington-based Hudson Institute, Satoru Nagao, asserted that India would be “very upset” if Japan’s foreign minister cancelled his trip due to the high level of diplomatic and political capital invested by the Modi government into the G20 summit.

Further, a US state department official already announced last week that the foreign ministers of the four ‘Quad’ countries will meet on March 3 after the G20 event. It remains to be seen whether the Quad ministerial meeting will go ahead with a Japanese official in attendance or whether foreign minister Hayashi will dial in virtually from Tokyo.

While India and Japan have forged closer ties, the Ukraine war has caused a rare divergence on the political front. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has personally steered a hardline position on the Ukraine war, with Japan imposing sanctions against Russia in line with the West. He also brought up the matter during his visit to India last year. On their part, Indian officials have often expressed puzzlement in private at the position taken by Japan on Ukraine, when Russia does not pose a security threat – like Moscow does for Europe.

Meanwhile, South Korea’s foreign office announced on February 24 that its foreign minister would not participate in the New Delhi meeting. As per diplomatic sources, he would not be able to participate due to involvement in “domestic affairs”.

South Korea is one of the biggest investors in the Indian economy, with South Korean companies dominating the consumer goods market in the South Asian country. In December, Seoul unveiled its first-ever Indo-Pacific strategy, a significant development for South Korea that had been a rare hold-out against Washington’s policy in the region.

According to a report in the Khyunghyang Shinmun newspaper, the South Korean foreign minister Park Jin had hoped to meet with his Japanese counterpart on the sidelines of the G20 meeting. It was to have been a continuation of their earlier meeting at Munich, where they tried to bridge their differences over reparations for Japan’s wartime use of forced labour. However, South Korea had apparently learnt that Hayashi would not attend the meeting in New Delhi.

However, the newspaper reported that the main reason for the South Korean foreign minister’s absence in New Delhi was the inability to fix a meeting with his newly-appointed Chinese counterpart Qin Gang. 

China, Russia to attend

The Chinese foreign office announced that Qin Gang would attend the G20 meeting, his first trip to India. It will be the first visit by a Chinese foreign minister since Wang Yi travelled to India last year. 

Ahead of the trip, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said they hoped that the G20 would “focus on the prominent challenges in the global economy and on development and play a bigger role in driving world economic recovery and global development”.

She said that China was “ready to work with all parties to ensure that the G20 Foreign Ministers’ Meeting will send a positive signal on multilateralism, food and energy security and development cooperation”. The missing item in the Chinese statement was the international ‘hot potato’ of the Ukraine war. 

Of course, it was the differences on the language to be used with regard to the invasion that ensured that the G20 finance ministers meeting in Bengaluru did not conclude with a joint statement. Instead, a chairman’s summary was issued, which noted that China and Russia did not sign up for the paragraphs referring to the Ukraine war. The document said that “most members strongly condemned” the Ukraine war, but there were “other views and different assessments of the situation and sanctions”.

The Indian opposition leader Shashi Tharoor said in an interview for The Wire on Monday that India had undermined its own leadership in order to placate the Russians. “And, indeed, the Russians issued a statement thanking India for its ‘constructive role’ in not using the word ‘war’. Now, this is getting absurd,” he said.

“This was an example where India’s nerve failed… Not having an agreed communiqué is a bigger failure for a chairman than having a communiqué with a word that displeases a friend,” he said, asserting that it was a setback for Indian diplomacy.

There was no official response from the Ministry of External Affairs, but official sources told reporters that they had “noted some politically biased and motivated comments on the G20 Finance Ministers’ Chair’s Summary and Outcome Document”.

“The fact is that it is India’s considered and balanced position that contributed in forging the Bali Declaration. In particular, Prime Minister’s statement that this is not an era of war found great resonance. Our endeavour was to reflect the Bali consensus in the G20 Finance Ministers’ Meeting. This was expressed in the Chair’s Summary and Outcome Document. Therefore any criticism is misplaced and factually inaccurate,” said official sources.

Also Read: Civil Society Groups Hit Out at G20 for Ignoring ‘Real Problems’ of Global South

A similar outcome?

There was, however, anticipation that the foreign ministers’ meeting in New Delhi would also have a similar trajectory to the Bengaluru jamboree.

Speaking to members of the Indian Association of Foreign Affairs Correspondents on Monday, former national security adviser Shiv Shankar Menon anticipated that the Bengaluru meeting had set a precedent, which could be helpful for India as chair. 

“China and Russia have now set a pattern, where they can get through G20 meetings – by objecting to certain parts while others say what they wish on Ukraine, and there is no joint statement. This may suit India as well,” he said.

Ahead of the March 2 meeting, Russian and EU foreign ministers issued uncompromising statements that they would strongly reiterate their positions on Ukraine.

“As Russia’s war against Ukraine marks its one-year anniversary, the High Representative (Josep Borrell) will convey a strong message on Russia’s blatant violation of international law and the UN Charter, and its global consequences, in particular on energy and food insecurity, but also on the importance of a stronger multilateralism system,” said an EU statement.

Announcing Sergei Lavrov’s trip, the Russian foreign ministry said on Tuesday that it would work with India by “showing the greatest possible flexibility” but will also protect “Russia’s fundamental interests and defend the international order based on the central role of the UN and international law”. Lavrov will bring up the Nord Stream gas pipeline explosion and seizure of Russian cargo ships with fertilisers during his intervention at the G20 meeting.

Note: This article was updated to include Japan’s official statement.