India seeks G20 consensus as Ukraine war shadow looms

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NEW DELHI, INDIA - SEPTEMBER 1: A new look of Gandhi Darshan where new installations along with Sculptures are placed ahead of G20 Summit at Rajghat on September 1, 2023 in New Delhi, India. (Photo by Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)IMAGE SOURCE,GETTY IMAGES
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Delhi has been decorated to welcome world leaders

India has turned the G20 into a diplomatic spectacle that has never been seen before.

After 200 meetings held in 60 Indian cities through the year, the campaign to turn India’s G20 presidency into a global triumph has reached fever pitch in the run-up to the leaders’ summit this weekend.

Delhi has been adorned with huge billboards and posters – displaying Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s image alongside a message welcoming delegates – signifying India’s readiness to embrace the world.

And all of this effort will finally come down to the leaders’ summit and their ability to release a joint declaration that signals broader agreement on issues of global concern.

India has been pushing hard for a declaration – if this summit ends without one, it will be a first. But that’s not going to be easy with a G20 that is divided on many issues, the biggest being the Ukraine war.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the gathering on the third day of the three-day B20 Summit in New Delhi on August 27, 2023. (Photo by Sajjad HUSSAIN / AFP) (Photo by SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP via Getty Images)IMAGE SOURCE,GETTY IMAGES
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Indian PM Narendra Modi has been the face of the country’s G20 presidency

The war also loomed large over last year’s G20 summit in Indonesia, but the group was able to put together a hurried declaration that noted the differences within the G20 over Ukraine.

But positions have hardened since then – Russia and China may not agree to give such concessions and the West, led by the US, will also not accept anything less than a clear condemnation of the war.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping are not attending and that might make decision-making a little harder. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and China’s Premier Li Qiang will represent their countries instead, but they may not have the political heft to make last-minute concessions without consulting their leaders.

The G20 foreign and finance ministers’ meetings also ended without a joint declaration earlier this year.

But India will still hope that the Ukraine issue doesn’t derail the concerns of the Global South – developing countries – that it wants to discuss.

The G20 countries account for 85% of the world’s economic output and 75% of world trade. They contain two-thirds of the global population. India has repeatedly said the group has a responsibility towards countries not present in the G20, and in doing so, has established itself as the voice of the Global South.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) wave during a welcoming ceremony on November 14, 2019 in Brasilia, Brazil. Leaders of Russia, China, Brazil, India and South Africa have gathered in Brasila for the BRICS Leaders SummitIMAGE SOURCE,GETTY IMAGES
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Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping are not attending the G20 summit in Delhi

The African Union’s presence at the G20 has further bolstered India’s position on the needs of the developing world.

“The issues like debt, rising food and energy prices have been exacerbated by the war and the pandemic. India and other developing countries in the G20 would want industrialised economies to contribute capital to resolve these issues,” says Tanvi Madan, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

But an agreement on these issues is also not certain. Take debt refinancing for example – India and other developing countries have been advocating that rich countries and institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) should give relief to nations that have been struggling to repay their loans.

But no negotiation on this can happen without discussing China. David Malpass, president of the World Bank until recently, said in December that the world’s poorest countries owed $62bn in annual debt service to creditors and that two-thirds of this was owed to China.

This has put many countries at risk of default, exacerbating poverty and skyrocketing food and energy prices.

China’s lending practices have been often described as predatory by Western officials – an allegation Beijing rejects.

G20 leaders in Bali, IndonesiaIMAGE SOURCE,GETTY IMAGES
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G20 leaders at last year’s Bali summit were able to release a joint declaration

Ms Madan adds that developing countries “need their creditors to help them restructure their timelines” and in some cases “help them with more financing”.

“We don’t know what will come out of this meeting yet, but the idea has been to reach some sort of compromise,” she adds.

G20 nations agreed on a Common Framework (CF) for debt restructuring of poor countries in 2020, but progress has been slow. The West has blamed China for dragging its feet, which it denies.

But India, which has ongoing border tensions with China, will want to get more commitment from rich countries – it has advocated extending the CF to more Global South nations (including middle-income countries), a move the EU has also endorsed in the past.

But if the West insists on blaming China for the debt crisis, it could become a roadblock.

India also wants global regulation on cryptocurrencies and an overhaul of institutions like the World Bank and the IMF – these issues are likely to be less fractious.

Climate change is another issue that Delhi has repeatedly raised, saying that some of the poorest countries are the most vulnerable due to extreme weather events.

The summit will take place in a newly built venue in DelhiIMAGE SOURCE,GETTY IMAGES
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The summit will take place at a newly built venue in Delhi

Mr Modi on Thursday wrote in an article that “ambitions for climate action must be matched with actions on climate finance and transfer of technology”.

His words reflect the divisions within the group over climate change financing. Developing countries don’t want to sign up to ambitious targets to cut greenhouse gases, fearing it would halt their growth. Instead, they blame industrialised countries for the crisis and demand that they take on a bigger share of the burden and commit money, technology and infrastructure to help them cut emissions.

Happymon Jacob, a professor of foreign policy at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, says that he doesn’t expect a decisive breakthrough on climate change.

“But it’s clear that it’s going to be one of the major agenda items of the G20 and Delhi would push rich countries to commit more resources to the cause,” he adds.

Food and energy security are also up for discussion and it’s expected that some consensus might be reached on this – though this will depend on Moscow agreeing to restart a deal with Kyiv which allowed Ukrainian grain to reach international markets. Analysts say any breakthrough over this deal within the G20 framework is highly unlikely.

Agreements on agriculture, pandemic preparedness, healthcare and the global supply chain are likely to happen but it’s not clear if they will be a part of the joint declaration.

Meanwhile, a topic that’s unlikely to come up is India’s deteriorating human rights track record under Mr Modi’s government, which critics and opposition leaders have often questioned.

Analysts say that despite pressure from activists and rights groups, Western leaders may not raise this issue at the talks in India – which is seen as an indispensable ally in attempts to contain China’s rise.

TOPSHOT - An artist paints a wall mural surrounding a garbage dump aside a logo of the G20 India summit ahead of its commencement in New Delhi on September 3, 2023. (Photo by Sajjad HUSSAIN / AFP) (Photo by SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP via Getty Images)IMAGE SOURCE,GETTY IMAGES
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Murals in India have celebrated the country’s successful Moon landing and the G20 summit

Some analysts, like Michael Kugelman of the Wilson Center think-tank, say the absence of a declaration would be a setback for India and Mr Modi, as well as the G20.

But he adds that India has a track record of working with countries that don’t get along with each other, pointing to how it has “successfully managed its relations with both Russia and the US”.

“So Delhi could be that country which is able to work through their differences. It wants to leverage its reputation of a balancer, but it’s going to be very difficult.”

Ms Madan says the absence of a joint declaration won’t necessarily be a failure as Delhi will be able to issue a chair’s summary (which host countries can do) which can show consensus on 90% of the issues.

But a fractious G20 would also make many question the relevance of the forum in a fast-changing world.

China has been promoting other platforms like the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). The Brics recently inducted Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE – all of them have good relations with China – into the group.

India is one of the few countries that are part of the Brics and the SCO, as well as of West-dominated forums like the Quad, G7 (as an invited member) and the G20.

In that context, it’s important for Delhi to deliver a successful summit with actionable outcomes which will bolster its status as an important global power and Mr Modi’s image as a consequential world leader.

It will show Delhi’s ability to not only understand but also balance competing demands of different multilateral forums. And it will also help further boost the Indian PM’s image at home, where a general election is due next year.

With Mr Modi taking foreign policy to smaller Indian towns and cities through G20 events, the stakes are high for him both at home and in the global political order.

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