Where Can The G-20 (Now G-21) Go From Here?

The G-20 Summit marked India’s emergence as a global leader, with the African Union’s inclusion symbolising its commitment to bridging development gaps. This diplomatic triumph boosts India’s international standing and aligns with domestic political imperatives, offering a distinct electoral advantage
By Arun Bhatnagar
  • The Leaders’ Declaration emphasised gender equality, countering terrorism money-laundering, and commitment to the Global South
  • The proposed India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC) intends to connect Europe and India via the Arabian Peninsula
  • Currently, the bulk of trade between India and Europe happens via sea route through Suez Canal. If it is bypassed, there will be loss of revenue to Egypt
  • With Russia inclined to stay away from the Summits it remains to be seen whether the G-21 grouping will largely be confined to trade and economy

THE eighteenth G-20 Summit – a glittering spectacle – hosted in New Delhi in September, 2023, focussed on the theme ‘One Earth, One Family, One Future’. Broadly speaking, it is being regarded as a significant diplomatic triumph for India on the world stage which also augurs well with respect to the compulsions of domestic politics, including in terms of distinct electoral advantage.

Founded in 1999, after the Asian financial crisis, as a platform for the Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors to discuss global economic and financial issues, the G-20 had its first meeting in Berlin. It was upgraded to the level of Heads of State/Government in the wake of the financial crisis of 2007 and, in 2009, was designated the ‘premier forum for international economic cooperation’.

SHIFTING PRIORITIES: FROM NAM TO G-20

The G-20 comprises Australia, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Turkey, the UK, the European Union (EU), Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Canada, the USA, South Africa and Saudi Arabia.

The latest addition, making it a G-21, is of the African Union (AU) whose current chairperson, Mr Azali Assoumani, is President of the Comoros, a former French possession. The AU has 55 Member-States, and is a continental body; the secretariat is located in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia).

A chunk of the credit for the AU’s induction has accrued to the Indian Prime Minister whose earlier decision to skip successive Summits of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) pointed to a drastic reordering of the government’s priorities, as also a break with the joint legacy, built decades ago, by Jawaharlal Nehru, Nkrumah, Nasser, Sukarno and Tito.

Interestingly, at the third India-Africa Forum Summit held at New Delhi in October, 2015, the Prime Minister, (after more than a year in office) did not once refer to the NAM, even though the grouping was, traditionally, a key bond between the African continent and India.

GDP PER CAPITA COMPARISON

In 1970, with a GDP per capita of US$ 111.97, India ranked 18 (out of 19) in the G-20; China, which lagged behind that year, moved ahead by 2022, pushing India to the last spot with a GDP per capita of US$ 2,389.

In respect of the Human Development Index (HDI) of 19 countries, India improved, in absolute terms, from 0.43 in 1990 to 0.63 in 2021, despite which it still stood at the bottom of the list. The HDI is a measure of life expectancy, access to education and standard of living.

A chunk of the credit for the Africa Union’s induction has accrued to the Indian Prime Minister whose earlier decision to skip successive Summits of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) pointed to a drastic reordering of the government’s priorities, as also a break with the joint legacy, built decades ago, by Jawaharlal Nehru, Nkrumah, Nasser, Sukarno and Tito

India’s performance has not registered much relative improvement in health, although there has been growth in absolute numbers. In 1990, the average life expectancy was 45.22 years, which was better than China’s at 33.27 years. By 2021, life expectancy rose to 67.24 years, ahead of South Africa. However, the ranking remained the same as China overtook India.

In 1990, with an infant mortality rate of 88.8, the country ranked at the bottom; in 2021, this had improved to 25.5 and India ranked 19, just ahead of South Africa at 26.4. The infant mortality rate is defined as the number of deaths of children under the age of one year, expressed per 1000 live births.
India’s comparative growth in the share of Women in Parliament has been tardy; from 8.10 percent in 1998, the share rose to 14.90 percent in 2022 but, when compared to the other countries and the E.U., its rank slipped from 15 in 1998 to 18 in 2022.

AGENDA AND OUTCOMES

The Leaders’ Declaration at the G-20 Summit avoided mention of the military action in the Ukraine and made a general appeal to all States to follow the principle of respecting each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, reflecting a sort of ‘climbdown’ by the Western powers.

The Declaration emphasised gender equality, countering terrorism and money-laundering, building digital technology, green infrastructure and commitment to the Global South.
With crucial – albeit tacit – support from President Biden, it eventually became a plausible proposition to ‘hammer out a consensus’ on the highly contentious Russia-Ukraine issue, through painstaking negotiations, and with Japan, as also emerging economies, such as Brazil, South Africa and Indonesia chipping in and playing a part, to achieve a breakthrough.

Ukraine was, obviously, disappointed with the Declaration, saying that there was ‘nothing to be proud of about the Joint Statement’, which did not condemn or explicitly criticise the Russian invasion.
The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry was miffed over its absence at the Summit since an invitation wasn’t extended to President Volodymyr Zelensky. Not so long back, the Prime Minister is believed to have assured Zelensky that India would do all in its power to help resolve the conflict.

FRAGILE UNITY: STRUGGLE FOR CONSENSUS

Independently-placed analysts think the G–20 Summit made no more than limited progress on debt and climate change and that it is important to develop consensus on action (not just language); the emphasis has to be on real issues, not only the Summit document.

In short, while the Summit was able to reach a compromise over the war in Ukraine, it papered over other key differences, presenting few concrete achievements in its core remit of responses to international financial matters.

The President of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations said that “the G20 has been at its best as a multilateral forum when it can forge consensus…. on action to deal with serious global issues… Looking ahead, the focus should be on that, not on the Statement per se”. He is a former US trade representative who has worked as Washington’s G20 negotiator.

Nonetheless, failure to agree on a Summit Declaration would have signalled that the G-20 was split, perhaps irrevocably, between the West on the one side and China and Russia on the other. And with Beijing pushing to reshuffle the World Order by expanding groupings, such as BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, it could have ended up becoming irrelevant.

The primary aim of the G-20 of coordinating responses to economic issues, including global taxation and helping low-income nations manage their debt burden, has, arguably, been diluted since the desire to secure consensus leads to weak agreements.

The Russian G-20 Sherpa (or government negotiator) was quoted as saying that ‘this was one of the most difficult G-20 Summits in the almost twenty-year history of the forum’.
Patrick Kugiel of the Polish Institute of International Affairs, Warsaw stated that ‘the G-20 process requires consensus on all decisions which means it will pursue the lowest common denominator…. therefore, we do not have concrete and substantial decisions, commitments, pledges from the G-20 on any of the pressing global challenges… it makes the forum ineffective…’.

The leaders agreed to pursue tripling renewable energy capacity globally by 2030 and accepted the need to phase-down coal power. However, they set no timetable and said the use of coal had to be wound down in line with national circumstances.

The Summit decided to address debt vulnerabilities of the poorer countries and reform Multilateral Development Banks, without setting any specific goals. There was no progress on getting Russia to return to the Black Sea Initiative, although the Declaration called for the safe flow of grain, food and fertiliser from both the Ukraine and Russia.

THE AMBITIOUS INDIA – MIDDLE EAST – EUROPE ECONOMIC CORRIDOR

At the Summit, much was sought to be made of a proposed India – Middle East–Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC), a transcontinental rail, maritime, energy and data network that seeks to link Europe with India via the Arabian peninsula. It is already being hailed as a ‘game-changing regional investment’ which may usher in ‘a new era of connectivity’.

Many of the details are still being ironed out and multiple options are being explored, such as the Port of Haifa (Israel) which is privately operated by the Adani Group.

The leaders agreed to pursue tripling renewable energy capacity globally by 2030 and accepted the need to phase-down coal power. However, they set no timetable and said the use of coal had to be wound down in line with national circumstances

Saudi Arabia and the UAE are also entering the China-dominated BRICS and both are inking nuclear energy cooperation deals with Beijing, which is deeply embedded in West Asia and has learnt to adapt to local laws, local contexts and local players. It won’t simply be pushed out by an upcoming Corridor.Currently, the bulk of trade between India and Europe happens via the sea route, through the Suez Canal, that is controlled by Egypt. If the Suez Canal is bypassed, there will be loss of revenue to Egypt, raising objections to the plan.

For many G-20 members, the Summit Declaration appeared a major gain since it reached consensus on ‘acceptable language’ to refer to the Ukraine war.

The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, who represented his country at the Summit in place of President Vladimir Putin, opined that India’s presidency, ‘probably for the first time during the entire G-20 existence, has truly consolidated G-20 participants from the Global South’.

There was no official word from China but its State-run news agency, without referring to the Declaration, said in a commentary that the G-20 could still be made to work. Beijing’s presence was muted at the Summit with President Xi Jinping staying away and his deputy, Premier Li Qiang (who took his post in March, 2023) representing China.

The top-levels in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – ideological mentor and organisational partner –have been conspicuously silent.

EMERGING GEO-POLITICAL CONCERNS

Almost immediately after the Summit, news began to arrive of the ‘burgeoning friendship’ between Kim Jong Un of North Korea and Vladimir Putin, stoking serious concerns in the Western bloc.
Washington accused North Korea of providing arms to Moscow that could bolster Russia’s military in the Ukraine and facilitate North Korea’s access to Russian missile technology.

President Putin has accepted an invitation from Kim – who was his valued guest – for a return visit to Pyongyang. Calling each other ‘comrades’, the two toasted to their friendship and Putin (70 years) showed his North Korean counterpart (39 years) around Russia’s most modern space launch facility. Both countries are deepening their ‘military cooperation’. During his stay in North Korea in July, 2023, the Russian Defence Minister, Sergei Shoigu, was shown banned ballistic missiles and is known to have observed:

The Summit decided to address debt vulnerabilities of the poorer countries and reform Multilateral Development Banks, without setting any specific goals. There was no progress on getting Russia to return to the Black Sea Initiative, although the Declaration called for the safe flow of grain, food and fertiliser from both the Ukraine and Russia

“There’s an old Russian saying, ‘You don’t choose your neighbours and it’s better to live with your neighbours in peace and harm.”

The Kremlin’s spokesman said, “These high-level contacts are very, very constructive. North Korea is our neighbour and, as with other neighbours, Russia intends to build and develop good relations and mutually beneficial cooperation ….”.

A Senior Fellow at the Wilson Centre in Washington D.C. commented:
‘The strengthening of the Russia-North Korea alliance comes at an opportune time for two countries with very few allies and a shared adversary in the United States …… it’s the resurrection of an alliance that serves the strategic interests of both Putin
and Kim’.

PATH FORWARD FOR THE G-20 NOW G-21

The Bali and New Delhi Summits can be said to have generated a geo-political impetus in the G-20. It seems clear that President Biden did considerable ‘heavy lifting’ at New Delhi which helped with the Russia-Ukraine issue.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada pushed a rule-of-law agenda at the Summit and condemned Moscow for its ‘illegal invasion of Ukraine’. He is among the longest-serving leaders in the grouping and said that if it were up to him, the language would have been much stronger: ‘People like Putin mistake being reasonable for being weak. He is dead wrong ….. Canada will support Ukraine with whatever it takes, as long as it takes’. After putting a ‘pause’ on the Early Progress Trade Agreement (EPTA), an indefinite postponement of a Trade Mission to India (scheduled for October, 2023) was decided by Canada. The development came almost at the same time as officials in New Delhi confirmed that trade talks with Ottawa were being suspended till subversive activities against ‘India or its people’ continue to be allowed in Canadian territory.

Canada–along with France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the U.S.A.– is part of the elite G-7, which India could one day aspire to join, perhaps sooner rather than later.

The European Union (EU) is a ‘non-enumerated member’ of this Group of Seven, an intergovernmental political forum that is organised around the values of pluralism, liberal democracy and representative government.

In a definitive statement, the German Ambassador to India, Phillip Ackermann, said it was some of the G-7 members who had prevented a possible demise of what became known, hours afterwards, as the Delhi Declaration.

Ackermann rejected the view that the Western bloc had ‘totally compromised’ their stand on Russia and Ukraine. He credited skilful negotiations and a joint proposal by Indonesia, India, Brazil and South Africa – that was presented, more or less as a fait accompli, at an early stage – for a positive outcome of the Summit.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE are also entering the China-dominated BRICS and both are inking nuclear energy cooperation deals with Beijing, which is deeply embedded in West Asia and has learnt to adapt to local laws, local contexts and local players

The joint proposal of the above-mentioned consecutive hosts of the G-20 – all from the category of ‘emerging economies’ – under the heading ‘For the Planet, People, Peace and Prosperity’, erased the language of the Bali Declaration of last year that had criticised Russia for the conflict in Ukraine. The G-7 (much less the G-21) does not offer short-cuts to Superpower status.

With Russia inclined to stay away from the Summits, at least as of now, it remains to be seen whether the G-21 grouping will largely be confined to trade and economy or whether (which does not seem unlikely), it will slowly, but surely, transform into a geo-political entity.

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil, (born October, 1945), incoming head of the G-20 (now G-21), had his finger on the pulse when he spoke in New Delhi about the urgency to scale down glaring inequalities and imbalances between nations and peoples, for which a judicious management of bilateral relations and economic ties and of more equitable trade agreements, is imperative.
Herein, may lie a way forward for the G-21.

Arun Bhatnagar

Arun Bhatnagar was formerly in the IAS and retired as Secretary, GOI. He attended St. Stephen’s College, Delhi in the early sixties. After retiring as Secretary (Personnel & Training) in the Union Government in 2004, he worked with the National Advisory Council (NAC) and, later, as Chairman, Prasar Bharati, New Delhi. He has had postings in the President of India’s Secretariat and in the Indian High Commission,
London. Bhatnagar’s earlier Book, ‘India: Shedding the Past, Embracing the Future, 1906-2017’, was well received as a historical narrative.

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