Home/ Opinion / Columns/  The bar for Delhi’s G20 Summit may have been set in Bengaluru

The first meeting of Group of 20 (G20) finance ministers and central bank governors (FMCBG) under India’s presidency was held in Bengaluru on 22-25 February 2023. The finance ministers reached agreement on a wide range of economic issues, including, inter alia, support for Turkey and Syria following a devastating earthquake, the global economy, climate finance, reform of multilateral development banks, sustainable finance, debt relief, safety nets, etc. However, what grabbed global media headlines was the group’s inability to issue a communique at the end of the meeting.

The news filtering down from those at the meeting is that G7 countries were adamant on using strong language to condemn Russia’s actions in Ukraine, including specific use of the word ‘war’, which was opposed by Russia and China. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi avoided referring to Ukraine at all in his opening comments. This may be understandable, since the G20 FMCBG is an economic forum, and India is sandwiched uncomfortably between the G7 and Russia. But there was nothing to prevent finance ministers from discussing geopolitical issues that also have deep economic and financial ramifications.

In the end, the chair was unable to pilot an agreed document and a communique could not be issued. This is the second time this has happened. The first occasion was at the FMCBG meeting under the last—Indonesian—presidency, on the same issue of Ukraine. A chair’s summary was issued instead. The Indonesian presidency was widely criticized at the time for diplomatic failure, and there was speculation whether the Indonesian presidency would be able to get all G20 countries to sign up on an agreed communique at the Bali Summit of G20 leaders. This is a risk that most non-G7 presidencies of the G 20 face on account of their limited geopolitical clout.

At Bali, however, President Widodo of Indonesia finessed differences between G20 countries through deft diplomacy, which led to agreed language that strongly condemned the war in Ukraine and aggression by Russia. A communique was issued and that summit was considered a success. Prime Minister Modi was also given some credit for that, with the phrase “today’s era must not be of war" attributed to him.

It is not clear why the language used in the Bali Leaders’ Declaration on Ukraine was not adopted in Bengaluru to resolve differences. It is an unstated convention in the G20 that language adopted in previous communiques is not objected to in subsequent communiques. The Russian foreign minister who represented Putin at the summit left Bali before the issue of the Bali Declaration as he felt cornered on Ukraine.

India was perhaps unwilling to antagonize a close ally. But while disagreement over Ukraine (paragraph 3 of the chair’s summary) might have been expected, what was surprising was the unwillingness of some G20 countries to sign up on the anodyne paragraph 4 with no reference to Ukraine. This simply reiterated general principles of international cooperation littered across previous G20 documents and other multilateral agreements on which one would have thought there is longstanding global consensus:

“It is essential to uphold international law and the multilateral system that safeguards peace and stability. This includes defending all the Purposes and Principles enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations and adhering to international humanitarian law, including the protection of civilians and infrastructure in armed conflicts. The use or threat of use of nuclear weapons is inadmissible. The peaceful resolution of conflicts, efforts to address crises, as well as diplomacy and dialogue, are vital. Today’s era must not be of war."

It is not clear whether the G20 absence of consensus on paragraph 4 (cited above) reflects diplomatic failure or a breakdown of global consensus on fundamental values. The latter would be deeply troubling. The former raises questions regarding India’s ability to pilot an agreed Leaders’ Declaration at the New Delhi Summit. No G20 summit has ended so far without an agreed Leaders Declaration, so a chair summary would be a new low. The bar to judge the success of the New Delhi Summit has perhaps been set.

As it happens, India has publicized its G20 presidency quite aggressively domestically. Hundreds of meetings have been lined up, and a large number of hoardings are coming up in these cities. While most governments do leverage the group’s rotational presidency domestically, this is unusual for G20 meetings where officials meet behind closed doors, with only their communiques and reports made public. The South Asia news editor and deputy bureau chief of AFP news agency in Delhi posted on his Twitter handle that he saw 63 hoardings with big pictures of India’s Prime Minister during a 5km drive to the venue of the FMCBG meeting. He later elaborated that there were actually well over 150 pictures if those on both sides of the road were counted. Whatever their impact in India, such hoardings are bad press in democracies overseas.

Judging from the outcomes in Bengaluru, it is not clear whether adequate attention is being given to quiet behind-the-scenes diplomacy ahead of G20 meetings to forge an agreed agenda and consensus on which a successful summit, geopolitical gains and soft power ultimately rest. While FMCBG meetings are regular fixtures under all G20 presidencies, other ministerials are optional, and the prerogative of the chair. It is difficult to fathom what India hopes to achieve by convening a meeting of G20 foreign ministers at this juncture (scheduled shortly from now) when it could not evolve consensus language on Ukraine at Bengaluru. While the FMCBG forum has a large economic and financial agenda to discuss, what would foreign ministers discuss other than Ukraine? Unless the necessary groundwork has been laid, India risks another ministerial without an agreed communique.

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Updated: 28 Feb 2023, 12:07 AM IST
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