India’s G20 Presidency, driven by consensus, was a clear political and diplomatic success, though deepening polarisation and the war in West Asia continue to raise serious concerns.
The Group of Twenty (G20) compels attention and scrutiny because of its membership accounting for about 85 per cent of the world’s GDP; its global agenda befitting the premier forum for international economic cooperation; its record of resolving past financial crises; and the regularity of its summits. As the level of G20 was elevated from the Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors to the Heads of Government or Leaders in 2008, international interest grew significantly. The hosts of the previous 17 summits invested in the presidency and contributed to the development of G20 as a major multilateral grouping.
Therefore, the 18th summit hosted by India on 9-10 September 2023 deserves an objective analysis to examine the context in which it was held, the way the Indian Presidency tackled the relevant challenges, and the significance of its outcomes. The specific objective of this essay is to evaluate the New Delhi Summit through the lens of geopolitics.
Geopolitics is not static; it evolves constantly shaped by global, regional, and bilateral developments. Hence, both the pre-summit and post-summit developments need to be considered to appreciate how the New Delhi package of decisions was crafted, and assess the possibilities of their implementation.
The decade of the 2020s has been marked by a series of historic developments, each impacting negatively on the global economy. The devastating impact of climate change began reaching several parts of the world. The COVID-19 pandemic was a rare phenomenon that affected the globe, resulting in over 675 million infection cases and 6.88 million deaths globally, according to the Johns Hopkins University of Medicine, Science came to humankind’s rescue, but inequality in providing access to the main tool led to the coinage of a new term – ‘vaccine injustice.’ The outbreak of war due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its perceptible transformation into the Russia-NATO conflict was a rare development, pushing Europe into the first major ‘hot’ confrontation since 1945. The US-China strategic contestation dating back to the previous decade gathered momentum, raising tensions and accelerating the arms race.
These factors exacerbated the pre-COVID-19 economic slowdown that affected developed and emerging market economies and created grave challenges for the developing world through unprecedented debt stress and the shortage and price rise of food, fuel, and fertilisers. These developments were certain to engulf G20 summits, and indeed they did so progressively, starting from the extraordinary virtual summit hosted by Saudi Arabia in March 2019 through subsequent summits ending with the Bali Summit in November 2022. The summit in Delhi was held in the backdrop of the cumulative impact of the ‘Polycrisis’ outlined above.
India could have hosted the summit two years earlier but preferred to wait by switching turns with Italy and Indonesia. This was meant to enable it to be ready with appropriate conference facilities. Some suggested that the choice of 2022-23 as the year to unveil a high-profile presidency may have been influenced by the timing of the next parliamentary elections, due in 2024.
When faced with grave challenges and a deeply polarised world, the Indian leadership advanced the concept of world unity and “the world as one family” – Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, a Vedantic dictum that appears in the Maha Upanishad (VI.71-73). No empty emotional rhetoric, it was backed by a strong rational justification. The world expected G20 to find solutions to key challenges such as development, financial stability, transnational crime, corruption, terrorism, and food and energy security. Solutions would emerge only through consensus. Hence, Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave a sharp message to the G20 Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in March 2023, “We should not allow issues that we cannot resolve together to come in the way of those that we can.”
The biggest achievement of G20 Summit was the exceptional prowess with which India managed to navigate the treacherous waters of a deeply divided world. The key challenge was to create unity within a disunited G20 so that it speaks with one voice and its summit culminates in a consensus document called “G20 New Delhi Leaders’ Declaration” (NDLD). The challenge was met successfully. Hence, the following seven features of the summit are particularly noteworthy.
One, the summit was preceded by a series of Ministerial Meetings, each of which had to be content with issuing only a Chair’s summary, as Russia and China refused to go along with the other members on the Ukraine issue. Indian officials negotiating the joint declaration revealed later that on many occasions it appeared the summit might fail to produce an agreement. But, in the end, diplomacy triumphed. The Bali Summit’s two paragraphs on the Ukraine issue gave way to well-crafted and finely calibrated eight paragraphs of the NDLD. They reconciled the rival positions and yet managed to express support for “a comprehensive, just and durable peace in Ukraine.” Behind this success lay India's policy mantras – multilateralism, multipolarity, and the middle way, noted Suhasini Haidar, the diplomatic editor of The Hindu.[i] Besides, India’s pro-active membership of the Quad and close ties with the US and the EU encouraged the G7 nations to show flexibility on Ukraine, thus contributing to the success of India’s G20 Presidency.
Two, the summit became truly ‘historic’ once it agreed unanimously on the first-ever expansion of G20 by admitting the African Union (AU) as a new member. The execution of this momentous agreement was not left to the summit next year. With impressive promptness, the G20 President invited the AU representative to take a seat at the high table within minutes of the opening session. By giving representation to the AU with its 54 UN-recognised members, G20 corrected a historic wrong, thereby strengthening itself and generating new hope for the developing world.
Three, the entry of AU formed part of a larger pattern set by India, which strove successfully to be “the voice of the Global South” by hosting an online summit of 125 developing countries in January 2023 and, subsequently, by integrating many of their concerns into the NDLD.[ii] This was notable progress in keeping with the previous endeavours made by G20, especially under the German Presidency. The Hamburg Summit in July 2017 launched the “G20 Africa Partnership” in recognition of the opportunities and challenges in African countries and the goals of the 2030 agenda, and it also welcomed the outcomes of the G20 Africa Partnership Conference held in Berlin.[iii]
Four, the admission of AU in G20 was facilitated by the expansion, a fortnight earlier, of BRICS from five to 11 members, and by the fact that many developing countries keenly sought its membership. G20 – particularly its G7 component – was anxious to retain the pivotal position of G20 by showing resilience to prevent the BRICS from stealing a march over it.
Five, strained relations between China and India since the bloody clash in June 2020 created a special concern. Observers feared that China might “rain on India's G20 party”. Unsatisfactory conversations between the top leaders of China and India on the sidelines of previous summits such as G20 and BRICS deepened this anxiety. President Xi Jinping’s decision to skip the New Delhi Summit was disappointing, but India took it in its stride. Fortunately, Beijing eventually chose to support rather than obstruct the Presidency’s efforts to produce a joint declaration. External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar noted that China was cooperative in creating consensus.
Six, it was remarkable for an economic forum, which includes members opposing UN reform, to accept the inclusion of a weighty formulation (in Para 47 of the NDLD) about ‘Reinvigorating Multilateralism’. It states that the United Nations must be “responsive to the entire membership”, inter-related challenges “can only be addressed through reinvigorated multilateralism, reforms and international cooperation”, and global governance should be “more representative, effective, transparent and accountable.”
Seven, the historic coincidence of four emerging market economies (Indonesia, India, Brazil, and South Africa) holding the G20 Presidency from 2021 to 2025, and of the three IBSA nations (India, Brazil, and South Africa) forming the G20 Troika for 2023-2024 has been widely welcomed. The IBSA Dialogue Forum, established in June 2006, was active at the summit level until 2011, whereafter it continued to hold ministerial meetings and push the causes dear to the Global South. Now it has a rare opportunity to project the case of developing countries. Noting its significance, IBSA foreign ministers decided, at their Trilateral Commission meeting on 23 September 2023, “to coordinate issues of common interest, including international trade and investment, environment and climate change, counter-terrorism, social inclusion and food security, development issues, health, and education.”
The other viewpoint
Amidst widespread appreciation and admiration for the summit outcomes, some articulated a mixture of skepticism and criticism. Three specific points may be mentioned here.
First, Ukraine and its European supporters were disappointed that President Volodymyr Zelensky was not invited to the summit. They saw the New Delhi formulations on Ukraine as a setback to their position. A spokesperson of the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs noted that “in terms of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, G20 has nothing to be proud of.”[iv] Second, John Kirton, Director G20 Research Group at the University of Toronto, a veteran expert on G20 matters, pointed out that the summit did not mobilise additional financial resources for the ambitious goals it outlined.[v] Third, while AU’s entry into G20 was widely welcomed, some Africanists pointed out that AU lacked policy, personnel, institutional, and financial capabilities to fully operationalise its G20 membership.[vi] Therefore, it may need external assistance.
The plain reality, however, is that critical comments were confined to a small circle of those interested in G20, while the larger view in assessing the summit’s achievements remained highly positive.
On the three-fold yardstick of Consensus, Additionality, and Implementation (CAI) coined by this author,[vii] the New Delhi Summit should receive a high rating for its clear political and diplomatic success. The summit declaration was backed by “100 per cent” consensus. Further, it broke new ground and achieved progress concerning the concept, goals, and objectives of economic governance, in comparison to the previous summits. The element of additionality is amply reflected in the listing of 12 goals (in Para 5 of the NDLD) ranging from securing inclusive growth and accelerating the full implementation of the 2030 Sustainable Agenda to addressing debt vulnerability and reform of Multilateral Development Banks. The third element – the implementation – is a key criterion for success, but it should be noted that (i) this will depend on all G20 members, not just the Presidency country, and (ii) the results may not be known except in the medium term.
It is heartening to note that the leaders of both Brazil and South Africa, the next two G20 Presidents, have already indicated their strong commitment to the New Delhi Declaration.
However, the broader state of geopolitics continues to be a serious worry. The anxiety deepened further by the Israel-Hamas war, which broke out within less than a month after the conclusion of the New Delhi Summit.
The world’s enlightened leadership would like to take the nations in the direction of resolving challenges of security and peace as well as poverty, health, climate change, and sustainable development. But while diplomacy can achieve much, it cannot attain everything. Realpolitik and the conflict of interests among nations and even non-state actors come into play, blocking progress. Will the message of the New Delhi Summit be heard and acted upon through reinforced endeavours in the near future? The jury is out, but purposeful action – anchored in optimism – is the only way out. This is the essential signal emanating from the 18th summit of G20 in Delhi.
The journey of the G20 caravan will now pass through Brazil and then South Africa. The baton is thus passed on by Asia to the two other continents – Latin America and Africa.
For achieving enlightened and inclusive multilateralism and other goals incorporated in the latest G20 Leaders’ Declaration, the world must pay heed, particularly to Para 14: “Today’s era must not be of war.”
Will the world internalise and act according to this message?
[i] Suhasini Haidar, ‘The mantras that powered success at the G-20 summit’, The Hindu, 20 September 2023.
[ii] ‘Summary of Deliberations: Voice of Global South Summit 2023 (January 12-13, 2023)’ Ministry of External Affairs, 13 January 2023, https://www.mea.gov.in/virtual-meetings-detail.htm?36119/Summary+of+Deliberations+Voice+of+Global+South+Summit+2023+January+1213+2023
[iii] ‘2017 Hamburg Summit’, G20 Information Centre, July 7-8, 2017, http://www.g20.utoronto.ca/summits/2017hamburg.html
[iv]‘Ukraine says G20 summit declaration 'nothing to be proud of' Reuters. 9 September 2023, https://www.reuters.com/world/ukraine-says-g20-summit-declaration-nothing-be-proud-of-2023-09-09
[v] At a seminar hosted by the O P Jindal University New Delhi, 12 September 2023. Source: author’s notes.
[vi] At the workshop hosted by NITI Aayog and ORF, New Delhi, 1 November 2023. Source: the author’s notes.
[vii] Rajiv Bhatia, ‘Assessing outcomes of G-20 summit’, The Hindu, 18 September 2023.