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EFSAS Commentary

At the New Delhi G20 Summit, India achieved what few can – get the West, China and Russia to sign a joint Declaration


In these times of deep global divisions that are threatening to divide humanity, the recently concluded 18th Group of Twenty (G20) Summit of 2023 that was held in New Delhi opted for the more optimistic theme of ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ or “One Earth, One Family, One Future”, a concept rooted in ancient Sanskrit texts which underscores the expectation that countries will support each other in pursuing growth. That the Summit unanimously approved an eighty-three-paragraph leaders’ declaration, which covered issues ranging from plastic pollution to terrorism, was a small step by the organizers in the direction that the theme promoted. The task of forging consensus among the world’s wealthiest countries, with the many bickering and divergences in ideology and positions between them, is not an easy task in the best of times, but the absence of Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladmir Putin from the Summit made the task even more onerous for India. By guiding home the declaration, India not only achieved what most had judged to be highly improbable before the Summit began, but it also added some more luster to its growing global stature. Some analysts saw India’s presidency as the point at which the transition of the G20’s agenda occurred – from being set and directed by the Group of Seven (G7) nations that have dominated it from inception, to becoming more representative of the developing world.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who chaired the Summit, advocated for reforming global institutions like the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to align it with the changed world dynamics, and this received backing from the United States (US). The 83 paragraphs of the 2023 G20 New Delhi Leaders’ Declaration that were approved, including by China and Russia, contained multiple agreements pertaining to the finance track. Besides focus on UN Sustainable Development Goals, climate action and green development initiatives, multilateral financing, digital public infrastructure, artificial intelligence (AI), and international taxation, among others, also figured. At the Summit, India’s Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman emphasized a concrete strategy for strengthening multilateral development banks, a path for regulating crypto currencies, and the deployment of digital public infrastructure to enhance financial inclusion. She also underscored the importance of a faster debt relief plan for vulnerable nations. Regarding climate change, the declaration stressed the urgency of mobilizing “US$5.8-5.9 trillion in the pre-2030 period for developing countries” and “US$4 trillion per year for clean energy technologies by 2030” to attain net-zero emissions by 2050. It called for a substantial increase in climate funding, transitioning from billions to trillions of dollars.

On the Ukraine war, the G20 nations agreed in the Declaration that States cannot grab territory by force. It highlighted the suffering of the people of Ukraine, but avoided direct criticism of Russia for the war. The declaration was seen as an apparent softening from the position that the G20 took last year, when it condemned Russia for the war and demanded that it withdraw from Ukraine. Reuters quoted diplomats as saying that Russia would never have accepted an outright condemnation, and that the Declaration was still a successful outcome because everyone, including Russia, committed themselves to not seizing territory by force. White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters the Summit Declaration “does a very good job of standing up for the principle that States cannot use force to seek territorial acquisition or to violate the territorial integrity and sovereignty or political independence of other States”. French President Emmanuel Macron expressed the view that the G20 Declaration had isolated Russia. That said, the Delhi declaration appeared to be designed to allow both the West and Russia to find positives.

Host India, along with Brazil, Indonesia and South Africa, played a key role in avoiding a fracturing of the G20 over the Ukraine conflict, the quoted diplomats revealed, reflecting the growing power of the Global South in the group. Nirupama Subramanian, underlining India’s increasing  importance for both sides of the geopolitical divide, opined in The Wire that “The consensus reflected an eagerness in the Western bloc to prevent the impression of a breakdown of the G20 in India, a country that the US is wooing assiduously for its geopolitical goal of containing China. The US and other Western members of the G20 agreed to the watering down of the language on the war to help India score a diplomatic victory”.

In another sign of the change of focus of the G20, the African Union (AU), which represents the 55 countries in the African continent, was inducted as a full member of the G20 at the Delhi Summit, on the same lines as the European Union (EU) is represented. Prior to this, the only African member of the G20 was South Africa. By championing the inclusion of the AU in the G20, India successfully positioned itself as a strong voice for developing and underdeveloped nations. This aligned well with New Delhi’s justified ambitions for a permanent seat on the UNSC, as it is actively seeking support from the African continent, which holds 55 crucial votes, in pursuit of this goal. India had also invited Nigeria, Egypt, and Mauritius to be ‘Guest Countries’ at the Summit.

Among the important agreements reached at the Summit, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed by the governments of India, the US, Saudi Arabia, the EU, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), France, Germany, and Italy to establish the India – Middle East – Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC). US President Joe Biden described this agreement as a “real big deal”. IMEC is envisioned as a network of transportation routes encompassing railways and sea lanes, and its primary objective is to promote economic development by fostering integration between Asia, the Arabian Gulf, and Europe. The project would consist of two corridors — the eastern corridor linking India to West Asia and the Middle East and the northern corridor linking West Asia and the Middle East with Europe. India will likely be connected with the UAE via sea links to the Dubai port, and this would likely be the starting point of the railway line connecting UAE to Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel and Europe. While the agreement did not have any binding financial agreements among the partners, the parties agreed to draft an action plan for the corridor within 60 days.

While specific details have not yet been outlined, the IMEC project falls under the umbrella of the Partnership for Global Infrastructure Investment (PGII), an initiative led by Western nations to support infrastructure projects worldwide. The PGII aims to secure funding for critical infrastructure development, including roads, ports, bridges, and communication systems, with the overarching goal of enhancing global trade and cooperation. While no leader explicitly mentioned China, it was clear that the IMEC corridor hopes to become a viable alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which, since its conception 10 years ago, has steadily established global connectivity linkages with the Chinese market through extensive shipping, rail, and road networks.

All sides of the international divide expressed satisfaction at the outcomes achieved at the New Delhi Summit. Joe Biden said this year’s Summit proved that the G20 can still drive solutions to the most pressing issues. Taking to X, the US President said, “At a moment when the global economy is suffering from the overlapping shocks of the climate crisis, fragility, and conflict, this year’s Summit proved that the G20 can still drive solutions to our most pressing issues”.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stressed that a strong partnership with India was paramount for Europe. She tweeted, “Thank you for your skilful leadership of the G20, @narandramodi. A strong partnership with India is paramount for Europe. Glad to see our Trade & Tech Council in action. And to have launched with you an historic project, the India – Middle East – Europe Economic Corridor”. She also highlighted the EU’s pending Free Trade Agreement with India, and said, “We also look forward to progress on a Free Trade Agreement. This would unlock the great potential in our partnership”.

French President Emmanuel Macron said the G20 Summit and the New Delhi Declaration had sent across a “message of unity”. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida concurred when he said at a press conference at the conclusion of the Summit that “Under the leadership of India as this year’s chair, we were able to agree on the G20 Leaders’ declaration which is a truly meaningful achievement”.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva thanked India for an “efficient leading” of the G20 Presidency and expressed gratitude for its efforts directed at giving voice to the issues of interest for emerging economies. He said, “I thank India for its efforts for giving voice of the topics of interest to emerging economies. I would also like to give my salute to our friend, the representative of the African Union, who is a member of the G20”.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described the Summit as a “breakthrough” conclave in many ways as its outcomes showed a path to the world to move forward on a range of challenges and demonstrated the strength and importance of the Global South. He averred that India had played an important role in “preventing the West” from taking forward their approach on many issues, including Ukraine. Lavrov added, “The summit declaration clearly sent across a message that military conflicts in the world must be resolved according to the UN Charter and that the Western powers will not be able to press ahead with their concepts of resolution of various crises. It is a breakthrough summit in many ways. It provides us a way forward to move ahead in many issues”.

The Atlantic Council on 10 September published the views of its experts on the takeaways from the Summit. Michael Schuman, nonresident senior fellow at the Council’s Global China Hub, opined that Modi had cemented his leadership of the Global South, while Xi had ‘contained’ himself. He wrote, “This G20 also represents an acceleration in the contest between China and other major powers for influence in the Global South. Modi proved that he is becoming a more important figure in the Global South and a counterweight to Xi within the developing world. While Xi apparently plans to rally the developing world in support of China’s anti-American agenda, Modi is offering an alternative vision of North-South relations that is focused on enhancing the voice of developing countries in global governance while at the same time cooperating — rather than confronting — the West. Modi’s advocacy of G20 membership for the African Union was a wise geopolitical maneuver that makes the forum even more inclusive. In that way, Xi turned out to be the biggest loser of the summit”. Schuman also felt that the Summit highlighted China’s growing isolation from most of the world’s major powers.

Kapil Sharma, senior director of the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, expressed the view that India, at the Summit, had forged a new model of inclusive diplomacy. He wrote, “With more than two hundred meetings in over sixty Indian cities, Indian officials were intent to make their presidency about representing marginalized voices and the Global South. While India was disappointed not to have Putin and Xi present, this G20 Summit was not about how diplomacy has been done, but rather how diplomacy can be done. In the end, India’s diplomacy demonstrated its ability to take on current geopolitical disagreements and represent those countries who have felt marginalized for decades”.  

Hung Tran,  a nonresident senior fellow at the Council’s GeoEconomics Center, suggested that “Overall, the outcomes of the G20 Summit will bolster India’s claim to be the voice of the Global South — being able to articulate the demands of developing countries and to engage in negotiations with developed countries to produce useful, if not spectacular, results. This is a good template for Brazil to take up the G20 presidency in 2024 and South Africa in 2025”.

At the start of the G20 Summit, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had told Al Jazeera in an interview that he feared a great fracture would ensue – the world dividing into two blocs, one of them led by the US and the other by China. It would develop into a system where there are two major currencies on each side of this divide, two internets, and two different economies. He said this would be a disaster for the world. Al Jazeera raised the query – “are we already getting there?”

The value of India lies in the fact that it is equally comfortable with both sides of the geopolitical divide, and has proved it can drive consensus and cooperation, even if limited, between the warring sides, something hardly anyone else can.