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G20 Summit, New Delhi: Before the curtain rises

The 18th summit of the Group of Twenty (G20) opens in New Delhi on 9th September and concludes the next day. The iconic photograph showing Prime Minister Narendra Modi receiving the presidential gavel from President Joko Widodo last November in Bali is about to be replaced by a new photo. It will show Mr Modi saying ‘Order, Order’ as he strikes the gavel at the presidential table to begin the summit by delivering his opening remarks. This ultimate G20 moment of India will be watched by millions around the world. It will be a high point for the nation’s ‘model of democracy with development’, pro-active international diplomacy, and global leadership.

G20, an apex institution

India is no stranger to hosting large international conferences. Some of the biggest summits in the past were the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Summit in March 1983, the Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) Summit in November 1983, and the Third India-Africa Forum Summit (IAFS) in March 2015. But there is something special and unique about G20 and its Delhi Summit.

One, G20 is composed of the world’s top developed nations and the most important emerging economies. All permanent members of the UN Security Council are there. So are all G7 members and the five members of BRICS. The MIKTA group, with its five members, is in G20, and there are others: Saudi Arabia, Argentina, and the European Union (EU). Besides, leading multilateral institutions such as the UN, World Bank, IMF, and others will attend the summit, as they did in the past. 

Two, the list of nine guests of India, as the G20 president, is imbued with significance of its own: Bangladesh, Egypt, Mauritius, Netherlands, Nigeria, Oman, Singapore, Spain, and the UAE.

Three, the political and economic weight of G20 countries is noteworthy. By all accounts, G20 now represents about 65% of the world’s population, 85% of the global GDP, and 75% of international trade. If the Indian proposal to admit the African Union (AU) as a member of G20 is accepted at the summit, these figures will register further increase.

Four, India’s presidency is part of a four-year cycle during which the presidency stays with developing countries only. Indonesia held it earlier. After India, it will move to Brazil and then to South Africa. Thus, the countries of the Global South have a rare opportunity to drive the G20 agenda in the desired direction, but in a pragmatic manner so that the Global North marches in tandem.

Presidency so far

India’s presidency began on 1 December 2022 and will end on 30 November 2023, that is, a few weeks after the Delhi Summit. The preceding nine months and eight days saw a series of intense preparations for the ultimate gathering of world leaders. The first of them – President Bola Ahmed Tinubu of Nigeria – arrived in Delhi on September 5.

The G20, as an informal multilateral institution, operates through its Finance Track (with its 8 work streams), the Sherpa Track (with its 13 working groups and two initiatives), and the autonomous meetings of the Foreign Ministers. The two tracks held meetings of their working groups composed of senior officials as well as Ministerial meetings. Besides, at the non-official level, 11 Engagement Groups contributed with a rich crop of inputs after holding their own meetings throughout the year, culminating in their own summits. For example, the communiques issued by Business 20 (B20) and Think 20 (T20) contain many substantial ideas and recommendations that the G20 governments may have accorded ample consideration.

In all these preparatory meetings, all G20 members were represented suitably. However, at the forthcoming summit, three leaders, through their absence, have drawn much attention to themselves. They are: Andrés Manuel López Obrador, President of Mexico, who has not attended a single G20 summit probably on ideological grounds; Vladimir Putin, President of Russia, who telephoned PM Modi to explain his preoccupation with the war as the reason of his absence; and Xi Jinping, President of China, who let it be known through a spokesman of the foreign ministry that China would be represented by Premier Li Qiang. Neither the Chinese President nor the spokesman offered any explanation for the former’s absence, leaving the world’s Sinologists and others to offer multiple theories.

But as External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar pointed out, all twenty members of G20 will be represented at the Delhi Summit. He also observed that “the countries are represented by whoever they have chosen to represent them”, adding, “The levels of representation do not become the final determinant of the position of a country.”

Key issues for summit

G20, founded in 1999 at the level of finance ministers and central bank governors, was elevated to the level of the Heads of State/ Government to address the global economic and financial crisis of 2007. Two years later, in 2009, it was officially depicted as “the premier forum for international economic cooperation.” Thus, today, while some argue that G20 can discuss and decide only economic issues, others maintain that as the powerful grouping of the world’s top leaders, G20 has no choice but to discuss political and geopolitical issues too, which have a bearing on the planet’s economies.

This argument is at the heart of the biggest challenge before the Delhi Summit: how should the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its economic consequences faced, especially by the countries of the Global South, be addressed and then reflected in the proposed Delhi Declaration? With India’s valuable help at the Bali Summit last year, negotiators agreed on two paragraphs, now known as ‘the Bali paras.’ In the run up to this year’s summit, Russia and China continue to insist on the exclusion of ‘the Bali paras,’ whereas the remaining 18 members including India, emphasise the need for their retention.

At the time of writing, G20 Sherpas and other officials were engaged in non-stop negotiations to break this vexed diplomatic impasse. There are other issues too on which differences persist among the US, EU, China, India, and others, but the word is that most of them can be managed, provided the Ukraine question gets resolved through consensus. On that vital matter depends whether the summit will issue a Joint Declaration or a mere ‘Chair’s Summary and Outcome Document.’

On most other substantive issues that form the core of G20 agenda, consensus has already been reached through the preceding official level and ministerial level deliberations. These include a wide array of subjects such as the measures essential to ensure the steady growth of a resilient and inclusive global economy; steps and finance needed for energy transition and for the accelerated implementation of SDGs 2030; promotion and sharing of Digital Public Infrastructure services with all interested nations; initiatives for environmental protection, leveraging of the Blue Economy and restoration and enriching of biodiversity; better preparedness for the next pandemic; and practical progress in women-led development and reform of multilateral development banks and other institutions. Agreement is also near on the admission of the AU as a member of G20.

Stakes and challenges 

The sad but overarching reality about the world today is that it faces multiple conflicts, sharpening strategic contestation, pressing global challenges and polarisation – even within the G20. Can the grouping hope to address all this by perpetuating differences or by narrowing them through mutual accommodation? The goal of Indian diplomacy today is to emphasise the large areas of agreement and narrow the areas of disagreement within the G20 family. The summit’s outcome, thus, depends on the members of G20 itself.

India has put a premium on its role as “the voice of the Global South”. But it also serves as the bridge between the Global South and the Global North, and between the West and the East. Can it succeed in all these roles at a time when India-China relations have touched a new low? That is the question under discussion in the capital’s diplomatic corridors.

In this complex situation, PM Modi has aptly observed, “We recognise that we all have our positions and perspectives on various global issues. At the same time, we have repeatedly emphasised that a divided world will find it difficult to fight common challenges.” Should this key message from the G20 President inspire all its members, the success of the Delhi Summit will stand assured.

(Disclaimer: The views of the writer do not represent the views of WION or ZMCL. Nor does WION or ZMCL endorse the views of the writer.)

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