Home / Opinion / Columns /  India is likely to push the G20 envelope on select issues

The summit of world leaders on the scenic island of Bali, Indonesia, ended with a fairly long and a somewhat consensual communique, hammered into place after lengthy negotiations. The clubby bonhomie on display also managed to paper over some obvious divergences, if only for now, providing some indications of what to expect during 2023 as India takes over the G20 presidency. India’s theme for G20 of 2023— “One Earth, One Family, One Future"—is in keeping with the obligatory abstruseness of other host countries; but its work-sheet has specific tasks spelt out, ranging from geopolitical crises to the stasis in multilateralism.

The first is the visible rift in the grouping caused by the Russia-Ukraine war with Russian President Vladimir Putin skipping the meeting and sending foreign minister Sergey Lavrov in his stead. As host, Indonesia had hoped to play some role in brokering peace by bringing all world leaders to the table, although some Western premiers might have felt a touch squeamish about sharing the same space as Putin. Indonesia and the G20 were saved many blushes after Putin excused himself. All things remaining constant, this frosty and inimical relationship between Putin and Western leaders is unlikely to thaw immediately and India will have to find contrivances to deal with this diplomatic complication.

In addition, the reluctance of India, Indonesia and China to outright criticize Russia’s aggression, as desired by Western powers, led to prolonged negotiations on concluding the final text of the summit. Consequently, the final declaration is a bit muddled, with some outright denunciation—“Most members strongly condemned the war"—leavened with India’s middle-of-the-path formulation, “Today’s era must not be of war." As host, India will have to ensure that this hair-line fracture does not develop into a mature fault-line.

India will also have to keep a close eye on how US-China ties move ahead. Leaders Joe Biden and Xi Jinping met at Bali, one-on-one, and global equity markets rallied the next day (helped also in some measure by China dialling down its stringent covid lockdown rules). As an additional sub-text, in the backdrop of India’s chilly ties with China over the past two-three years, Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi shook hands and exchanged pleasantries, though they did not meet for a bilateral. Modi will have to deploy all his diplomatic and persuasion skills to ensure that Russia, China, the US and other Western powers shed their differences, attend the 2023 leaders’ summit in New Delhi, and engage in negotiations; having declared India as the haven of peace, the world will be expecting some tangible outcomes from India’s G20 presidency.

These are tough asks, but are located within the realm of the possible. However, India’s presidency also wants to push the envelope. Modi’s address at the Bali session on food and energy security hinted at India’s over-arching ambitions: “We should also not hesitate to acknowledge that multilateral institutions such as the UN have been unsuccessful… And we have all failed to make suitable reforms in them. Therefore, today the world has greater expectations from the G-20, the relevance of our group has become more significant."

While one can be blamed for reading too much into this statement, it could be a pointer to what India and the Global South want the G20 to achieve. With three emerging economies holding back-to-back presidencies—Indonesia, India and Brazil—the G20 has an opportunity to correct some of the inequities and asymmetries in global multilateral institutions. Even though the modus for accomplishing the desired end result remains undefined, the idea of the G20 taking up the slack of global multilateral institutions seems interesting.

India’s growing preference for non-treaty partnerships that eschew the burden of secretariats and a permanent bureaucracy—such as the four-member Quad or the G20—perhaps springs from its dissatisfaction with existing multilateral institutions and their exclusionary structures. New Delhi, and perhaps some other emerging nations, may have also been encouraged in this by the perception that emerging economies seem to have greater weightage in such political groupings when compared with formal institutions.

As an example, at the G20 leadership’s urging, the Financial Stability Board and a few other international organizations have finally put together a road-map and a framework for making cross-border payments— including worker remittances—cheaper, faster, more transparent and with broader access. The 2014 Brisbane resolution on ending cross-border tax evasion has finally found shape in the two-pillar formulation from Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. But many other gaps remain. For example, the decade-long desire to catalyse growth through investment in sustainable infrastructure has seen the investment gap grow longer each year. This includes the developed world faltering on its promise to provide $100-billion finance every year to developing and poor nations for countering climate change.

The G20 platform’s influence can certainly be leveraged to create better opportunities for the Global South, though it might be premature to envision it as an alternative to multilateral institutions in the immediate future. Here is an additional reality check: all the G20 successes mentioned above have taken at least 7-8 years to fructify.

Rajrishi Singhal is a policy consultant and a senior journalist. His Twitter handle is @rajrishisinghal.

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