/ 13 September 2023

G20 summit depicted compromises and political manoeuvring

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US President Joe Biden, Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and French President Emmanuel Macron arrive to pay respects at the Mahatma Gandhi memorial at Raj Ghat on the sidelines of the G20 summit in New Delhi on September 10, 2023. Photo by Ludovic MARIN / POOL / AFP)

In the realm of cold, hard facts, the G20 summit, while not without its merits such as the inclusion of the African Union, has left much to be desired. This gathering, when assessed in the context of two pressing issues demanding the utmost attention from its participants — climate change and sovereign debt restructuring — has been disheartening. 

Despite exhaustive talks over the past years, the G20 nations have yet to reach pragmatic and harmonious resolutions on both matters. In the New Delhi declaration, there was an absence of fresh commitments to reduce coal usage compared to the previous Bali summit. But the declaration did introduce the creation of a Green Hydrogen Innovation Centre, a pledge to triple renewable energy production by 2030, the initiation of a global biofuels alliance, and a shift in the discourse on finance from billions to trillions, signalling some progress on critical environmental fronts.

In the joint statement, the G20 summit grappled with an array of issues encompassing climate financing, the global debt conundrum, institutional overhauls such as the World Bank, and the inception of a fresh “green development pact” among its member nations. What was once envisioned as a forum primarily aimed at tackling pressing concerns such as food security, debt governance and climate transformation has morphed into a multifaceted arena for navigating the intricate tapestry of global geopolitics. 

The summit’s aspirations have been marred by deepening schisms, most notably exemplified by the ongoing Ukrainian crisis. These divisions have hindered the G20 nations from forging a consensus, even on the most fundamental matters. 

The G20 summit marked a notable milestone with the inclusion of the AU as a permanent member, symbolising a rare instance of consensus among global economic giants. Yet, concerns about the summit’s unity and the difficulties in crafting a joint declaration persist. 

China was a prominent supporter of the African Union’s G20 membership, emphasising the AU’s potential to assume a greater role in global governance. This admission stands as a beacon of progress toward the reforms advocated for in various spheres, including the United Nations Security Council and multilateral financial institutions. The G20’s embrace of the African Union reflects a positive step towards a more inclusive and reformed global order. 

The AU’s inclusion signifies progress, but it also serves as a reminder that even in the grand stage of global diplomacy, unity remains an elusive goal, and consensus often requires delicate manoeuvring and compromise. 

The road to a final statement was far from smooth, with the contentious matter of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine causing friction. The compromise reached, notably involving the tempering of language regarding Russia in Ukraine, allowed for an official statement to be signed off. 

The recent G20 summit stands out as one of the most challenging in the forum’s nearly two-decade history. Crafting the declaration consumed nearly 20 days prior to the summit and an additional five on-site. Discord not only revolved around Ukraine but also spanned crucial concerns like climate change and the shift toward low-carbon energy. But the Ukraine conflict proved to be the most contentious point of contention in these intricate negotiations. Until the eleventh hour on Friday, an unsettling void had occupied the joint statement regarding the Ukraine conflict at the G20 summit. 

The section dedicated to the “geopolitical situation” had remained empty. European nations had pushed for strong language to denounce Russia’s incursion, but Russia and China persuaded them from any mention of the war. Such diplomatic wrangling, emblematic of the complexities inherent in international gatherings, underscores the arduous task of balancing divergent interests and viewpoints within the G20’s ambit. It’s a reminder that even within the realm of global diplomacy, the power of words and symbols carries weight, capable of shaping the narratives and directions of our interconnected world.

The final statement, released just a day before the summit’s formal conclusion, emphasised the “human suffering and negative consequences of the conflict in Ukraine” without explicitly blaming and naming Russia. Instead, it invoked the United Nations charter, stressing that “all states should refrain from using force or threats to acquire territory, infringe on territorial integrity, sovereignty, or political independence of any state, and deeming the use or threat of nuclear weapons unacceptable”. In stark contrast, the Bali declaration had directly referenced a UN resolution condemning “the aggression by the Russian Federation against Ukraine” and expressed that “most members strongly condemned the war in Ukraine”. 

In a move on the sidelines of the summit, India unveiled a multinational rail and shipping endeavour connecting India, the Middle East and Europe. This strategic corridor, involving India, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Israel and the European Union, poses a challenge to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), aiming to enhance trade, energy access, and digital connectivity in the region. Simultaneously, Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, also announced a “Trans-African Corridor” linking Angola’s Lobito port with landlocked regions, including Kananga in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zambia’s copper-mining areas. 

US President Biden lauded this African initiative as a “game-changing regional investment”. Crucial project specifics such as funding, geographical locations and timelines remain undisclosed, raising questions about the thoroughness of the planning process. Amos Hochstein, Biden’s coordinator for global infrastructure and energy security, said that over the next 60 days, working groups will craft a comprehensive plan and establish precise timelines.

The initial phase will focus on pinpointing areas requiring investment and interconnecting physical infrastructure across nations. Hochstein assured that these plans will be implemented within the coming year, paving the way for financial arrangements and the commencement of construction.

So, these corridors were announced in haste as an “election campaign” strategy — both India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Biden face elections next year. 

The G20 undeniably serves as a crucial platform for addressing global issues, and its character is evolving with the growing influence of developing nations like China, South Africa, India and other African countries. This expansion of voices in the G20 is diluting the once-unilateral dominance of Western narrative. In response, the US appears poised to assert itself, aiming to reclaim a commanding role in this multilateral mechanism.

Many believe the US is attempting to mould the G20 to serve its own interests and see it as a bid to reassert Western hegemony. As the world becomes more multipolar, the G20’s dynamics continue to shift and the global stage becomes more complex, the path forward for international cooperation remains anything but straightforward.

Imran Khalid is a freelance columnist on international affairs based in Karachi, Pakistan. He qualified as a physician from Dow Medical University in 1991 and has a master’s degree in international relations from Karachi University.