The government has invested a great deal in the G20 summit in Delhi—to rebrand India as a true global power. But the alliance itself may be losing relevance in an increasingly fractured world.
Researched by: Nirmal Bhansali & Aarthi Ramnath
Remind me about the G20
The Group of 20 includes the most powerful economies in the world. Together, they account for 80% of the global GDP and 75% of all international trade. The members are: Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Turkey, United Kingdom, the United States and the European Union. Since 2008, the leaders of these countries meet once a year to coordinate their strategies to manage the global economy.
Origin story: Once upon a time, the world economic order was ruled by Western countries and their allies—the so-called G7. But in the 1990s, it became painfully apparent that the global economy could no longer be controlled by this exclusive club. In 1997, the emerging Asian economies—like Indonesia, Korea, and Thailand—which were poised to be the next economic powerhouses—were overwhelmed by a severe financial crisis. Soon after, Russia also tailspun into trouble—and defaulted on its debt.
That’s when countries like Canada, US and Germany finally acknowledged the need for a more inclusive bloc to ensure global stability:
The criteria included the size of GDP but not necessarily at the top. Geopolitics—who had regional weight and who didn’t, who could be useful—played an equally important role for countries that were not obvious choices like China, India, Brazil, South Africa and Mexico.
The big G20 win: That decision was vindicated when the world was rocked by a massive recession in 2008. That year, the leaders of the member nations attended the annual summit for the first time—rather than finance ministers. And they were credited for single-handedly saving “a global financial system in free fall”:
The G20 members’ decision to spend $4 trillion to boost their economies, abolish trade barriers and initiate systemic financial reforms—buoyed not least by emerging economies that had remained resilient and/or quickly recovered to preclude domestic recessions—is credited with ensuring the post-Lehman crisis did not come to rival the Great Depression.
Point to note: As Thomas Wright writes in The Atlantic, the G20 was birthed by a specific moment in history—when the Cold War had ended and the world seemed united by a single liberal economic order. This was a time when the likes of Thomas Friedman sold bestselling books claiming the “world is flat.” And globalisation would become a singular uniting force:
The assumption underpinning the G20, which took hold in the 2000s, was that all major powers were converging around a single model of liberal international order. As they traded and interacted with each other, the thinking went, they would become “responsible stakeholders” in that order, sharing challenges and limiting their geopolitical differences. Over time, they would liberalise their political and economic systems, even if some fell short of fully fledged liberal democracy.
Ok, what’s the big deal about this summit?
The summit represents a great opportunity for India—but a series of challenges for the G20. Let’s start with what it means for New Delhi.
The great makeover: The government has gone all in on turning the summit into a spectacle. The summit is being held in a spanking new complex at Pragati Maidan—named Bharat Mandapam—which also boasts a massive Nataraj:
And the government has spent $120 million on a beautification exercise to pretty up Delhi for the honoured guests—which included chasing away all the street vendors and even demolishing homes. You can see the brave attempt to cover up all the ugly bits below:
The global rebrand: As the Washington Post notes, the summit serves as an excellent stage for both the PM and New Delhi: “The message is simple: By hosting the world’s top leaders, India has arrived as a world power, with Modi as the person who took the country there.” And it comes at a time when the US and its allies are turning to India—to counterbalance within the G20 to a hostile China and Russia. Interestingly, New Delhi is now the original G7’s bestie:
“Japan sees a rivalry over the leadership of the ‘Global South’ between India and China, and it is in the interest of Japan and the G-7 that India plays a leading role in the ‘Global South’, not China,” said Hiroyuki Akita, Tokyo-based strategic affairs commentator at Nikkei, in an interview with The Hindu. Mr. Akita said that was one of the key issues for Japan in the lead-up to this year’s G-20, so much so that Prime Minister Fumio Kishida had invited Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the May meeting of the G-7 countries… in Hiroshima.
Enter, African Union: According to unofficial sources, the 55-member African Union will become a member of the G20. This is a huge diplomatic win for New Delhi—which has used its one-year term as president to position itself as the leader of the Global South:
At the beginning of its presidency, it held a virtual meeting of the Global South which was attended by 125 countries. At that gathering, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that “three-fourths of humanity lives in our countries. We should also have [an] equivalent voice.”... Meanwhile, in late August, and just ahead of the G20 summit, Modi proposed that the African Union should be a full member of the bloc – currently South Africa is the only country from the continent that is a G20 member. He described his suggestion as an example of India’s “vision of inclusiveness.”
That’s why Indian officials are already claiming that the AU membership will “leave a lasting imprint” of India’s G20 presidency.
And what’s the big challenge?
Pretty much the same thing that offers India so much leverage—the rift with China and Russia. Leaders of both countries did not show up for the summit.
Vladimir Putin: hasn’t turned up at most international forums since the Ukraine invasion. Be it the G20 summit hosted by Indonesia in 2022 or the recent BRICS summit in Johannesburg, Ukraine has become the most contentious point between members:
Most South-East Asians do not feel that it is their fight, and only a minority of the region’s governments have openly condemned Russia’s aggression. But Asian leaders have to grapple with the consequences of the war, like disrupted food supplies and rising prices.
India feels the same—perhaps more so since it relies on Moscow for most of its military purchases and oil. So Putin has instead opted to stay on the sidelines—relying instead on one-on-one diplomacy. For example, he had extended conversations with Modi ahead of this summit.
The tricky bit: Every G20 summit of leaders so far has ended with a joint Leaders’ Declaration—signifying some level of consensus. Ukraine, however, has turned the joint statement into a minefield. Last year, Indonesia fudged over the differences by using this language:
Most members strongly condemned the war in Ukraine and stressed it is causing immense human suffering and exacerbating existing fragilities in the global economy - constraining growth, increasing inflation, disrupting supply chains, heightening energy and food insecurity, and elevating financial stability risks. There were other views and different assessments of the situation and sanctions.
But it is still unclear what New Delhi will do—especially in the absence of Putin’s other great ally: President Xi. It is clear that Indonesia’s tactics won’t wash a second time. An EU envoy told reporters: “We can’t say if a joint statement will be issued… text prepared by the Indians is not sufficient for G7 and the EU.”
The Chinese factor: There has been great speculation over Xi’s decision to skip the summit—especially since he has been present at every G20 meet since he took office—except for the one in 2021 due to the pandemic. One reason may be that Beijing increasingly prefers to participate in alliances where it can play a more dominant role (example: BRICS—which we explained here).
With or without Xi, it is clear that Beijing is being as obstructive as possible:
In particular, China’s delegation has been opposed to many of the wordings and initiatives proposed by India, with more than one diplomat present at the meeting speaking about the constant confrontations going “back and forth” between the Indian and Chinese delegates.
The bottomline: For all the pomp and ceremony, it will be embarrassing to become the first president to host a G20 summit that fails to produce a joint statement. But this unhappy outcome may say more about the G20’s relevance than that of India. A number of analysts say that we are now in a ‘G-Zero’ world’—”one in which countries go it alone or form ad hoc coalitions to pursue their interests.”
On the significance of the summit for India, read TIME, Washington Post and Al Jazeera. Open magazine has more on the origins of the G20—and the CFR offers a good overview of its history. New York Times and The Atlantic are excellent on why the G20 is flailing.