Sanjaya Baru | Global South can make G-20 much less of a G-2

India must set out an agenda of interest to the developing countries

It was a clever one-liner. The kind that diplomats all over the world are paid to conjure up at the right time for their political bosses. This is “not an era of war”, declared Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and the Western media and the Western political leadership, desperately seeking some remark coming out of New Delhi as a criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin, lapped it up. Both President Vladimir Putin and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy ignored the remark. But the purpose was served. One more memorable Modi one-liner.

The question is, however, this: Does India truly believe that the “era of war is over”? If so, when did it really end? Did it end in 1991, after the implosion of the Soviet Union, or in 2003, after the American invasion of Iraq, or in 2021, after the United States withdrew from Afghanistan? Military experts would argue that kinetic wars like those seen in the past have been replaced by cyber wars, proxy wars, information wars, and so on. India officially claims that China has waged war, occupying Indian territory, and that Pakistan has long waged a proxy war through cross-border terrorism.

If Prime Minister Modi’s intent was to suggest that this is not the era of “big power wars”, then one must figure out how he views the US-China trade war and the “weaponisation” of globalisation following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Europeans falsely claim that after the Second World War they have had a half-century of peace. Is that true?

Europe took its wars to other continents and, after the breakup of Yugoslavia, Europe had its own war in the Balkans. Wars wage in Africa and West Asia and the threat of war hangs over East Asia.

So, this clever one-liner means very little. It has become the fig leaf for the West to claim that India had reprimanded Vladimir Putin and for Indian diplomats to claim that India has achieved something at the Bali summit of the G-20. Amusingly enough, the Indian “sherpa” at G-20, Amitabh Kant, even claimed that India had “isolated” China by squeezing this one sentence into the Bali Declaration. The fact, however, is that the Bali summit became memorable only because of the meeting between President Joe Biden and President Xi Jinping. That meeting, which reduced the G-20 to a G-2, hogged most headlines internationally.

The Indonesian slogan for the Bali summit was “Recover Together, Recover Stronger”, presumably from the global economic slowdown. But, the 51-para, 9,700-word Bali Declaration is full of platitudes and good intent. Hardly any concrete commitments apart from a few billion dollars of support for developing countries. Did Bali outline an agenda for recovery or for international cooperation to enable that recovery? Hardly. In short, the Bali summit was just another summit like the past several G-20 summits.

India should undertake a no-nonsense assessment of where the G-20 now stands, as a grouping, and what are likely to be the deliverables at the India summit in September 2023. The hype being generated, by some diplomats and the Indian sherpa can go up “poof” in the air if the Big Power rivalries continue to divide the G-20.

External affairs minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar has offered an intelligent route out by declaring that India would be the “voice of the Global South”. That could at least help focus attention on some key development issues and enable some concrete outcomes.
But to claim that India is now influencing the global discourse, offering solutions for global problems, acting as a bridge between warring nations is a lot of hot air. But the propaganda machine is in full swing and think tankers have been mobilised to blow the trumpets for the next nine months.

Origins of G-20: An important criticism of the Bali summit has been that it “politicised” an essentially economic forum created to deal with economic and financial challenges facing the world economy and developing countries. It is useful to recall how a G-20 summit came into being in 2008 and its concrete achievements in 2008-2010.

After the collapse of Lehmann Brothers in September 2008 and faced with the spreading wildfire of financial and banking crises in the trans-Atlantic economies, President Nicholas Sarkozy of France flew down to Camp David to urge US President George W. Bush to convene a meeting of the G-7 to deal with the crisis. Both recognised the need to get China on board given its systemic links with the trans-Atlantic economies. However, after the G-7’s misadventure inviting Russia into a G-8, Mr Bush was not prepared for a new G-8 with China. Mr Sarkozy suggested elevating the G-20 finance ministers’ group to a summit-level meeting.

That is how the G-20 was born. It was in its essence a camouflage for the G-2.
Having successfully dealt with the 2008-09 crisis, the group lost steam and G-20 summits over the past several years have yielded little by way of concrete policy action. If India wants to make sure that the New Delhi summit is also not reduced to just a photo-op and a series of bilateral meetings, it must craft an agenda that brings to the global table the concerns of developing countries.

Rather than make a circus out of a summit, which seems to be the direction in which things are moving in New Delhi, India must set out an agenda of interest to the developing countries and bring development issues back to the international discourse.

Developing countries need access to finance, to markets, to technology and a revitalisation of multilateralism in finance and trade. The process of de-globalisation initiated by the West has to be stopped, if not reversed. The terms of engagement on issues such as trade and technology transfer, with a focus on climate change, and cross-border migration are issues of concern to the Global South.

The developed economies will resist such initiatives, but India and other developing countries, including Brazil, Indonesia and South Africa, must stand their ground. Their activism may yield little, apart from another 9,000-word declaration of good intent. That need not deter India, the country with the lowest per capita income within the G-20, from espousing the interests of the world’s poor.

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