G20 geopolitics and its many complexities

The two G20 meetings in India reflected that the Ukraine war is unlikely to come to a quick end. Even if it does, a ceasefire by itself will hardly be sufficient
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express Illustrations | Sourav Roy)
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express Illustrations | Sourav Roy)

The Government of India’s national portal describes the Group of 20 (G20) as—“the premier intergovernmental forum for international economic cooperation. The forum plays an important role in shaping and strengthening global architecture and governance on all major international economic issues.” That is as near-perfect an understanding of the goals of the G20 as possible. G20 is essentially about economics and development and all that is internationally connected with these. Consensus on macro issues is possible, but much gets mired in the intricacies of many micro issues between the developed and the underdeveloped worlds.

Unfortunately, it also includes geopolitics, which isn’t something conducive to consensus. Geopolitical issues have marred two major events of the G20, which were to set the stage for the summit in September 2023 under India’s chairmanship. These are the Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors (FMCBG) meeting in Bengaluru, and the Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in New Delhi; both, held in the last fortnight, did not end with the traditional joint statements. There appears to be a speculative judgement that India, in its capacity as the G20 Chair, could not swing the joint statements. The label of success or lack of it in the context of today’s challenging times is a misnomer; the complexities are both vast and contentious. A broader understanding of the geopolitical environment in the context of the larger G20 agenda may help explain the inevitable grey zone.

We have just emerged from a pandemic, which has shaken the best of the world. No nation remained completely unaffected. Economies have been shattered, and nations are struggling to seek more economic stability. The almost three years of the pandemic also encompassed geopolitical turbulence, which shook the traditional formulations. Additionally, the war in Ukraine got triggered with no clarity of likely outcomes and length of the period of hostilities. There are ambitious aspirations among the big powers which appear to be taking the world on a contentious path of confrontation, as against the convergence of interests in 1989 when the Cold War ended.

Ukraine is the grain bowl for many food-deficient countries, and being at war affects their food security. The war has severely affected the energy and food security of even rich nations, thus placing the international community under considerable strain. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan has opened up different opportunities for various countries. The Central Asian region has become much more vulnerable, with Russia and China concerned about the flow of extremist ideologies in their border regions. The most turbulent of regions, the Middle East, quiet for some time now, seems to be coming alive again. Nations have interdependencies for their economic progress, assured resources and markets. When these get disturbed, it is geopolitics that comes to the fore.

Geopolitics prevented a joint statement, but both events held in India ended with a Chair’s Summary and Outcome Document each. The Chair’s Summary and Outcome Document of the G20 FMCBG was a significant achievement by G20 under India’s presidency on a wide variety of subjects, ranging from the global debt crisis, multilateral development bank (MDB) reforms, climate finance, global approach on cryptos, digital public infrastructure, financial inclusion, financing cities of tomorrow, and taxation. Only a joint statement to show consensus remained elusive. This is by no means a failure of diplomacy on the part of India. In fact, in the backdrop of a massive conventional war which is an outcome of the unfinished process of the Cold War, none could have expected consensus, even in the domain of economics, which has such intricate connections with resources, trade, manufacturing, markets and consumption; all in turn connected to the geopolitical environment.

The Foreign Ministers’ Meeting also resulted in a Chair Summary with an Outcome Document. Here, it was more understandable. It focused on the softer aspects, expressing the need for a strong sentiment to expand multilateralism and the essentiality of reforms at the United Nations.

As an essential stakeholder in both, India needed to project this. Also included were the important principles of international development cooperation, such as host country ownership, equal partnerships and tailoring these for local needs. It also stressed the need for reliable food, fertilisers, and energy supply chains—one of India’s key focus areas in the past few months. The document brings out the need for an initiative in global skill mapping. It reiterates the need for developed nations to come together to provide the $100 billion required for green financing every year, which is mandated till 2025.

Through the Sherpa Track, 13 Working Groups and two initiatives will meet under India’s presidency to discuss priorities and provide recommendations. Besides this, the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) has been designated as the Business 20 (B20) Secretariat for India’s G20 presidency. B20 India will host a series of discussions and policy advocacy forums across India, covering the identified industry priorities, aiming to realise the B20 strategic vision and translate it into concrete and actionable policy recommendations.

Except for the issues concerning the war in Ukraine, all aspects of the G20 agenda appear to be well-flagged and emphasised. Anticipating the problem of obtaining consensus, Prime Minister Narendra Modi adopted a strategy to focus on “what unites, not what divides”. He stated that India chose the theme of ‘One Earth, One Family, One Future’ for its G20 presidency to signal the need for unity of purpose and the unity of action.

The warring sides had arrived in New Delhi in the backdrop of Ukraine’s dynamic and fast-changing military environment. With hardcore information warfare rife, it has been difficult for anyone to know the actual situation and how it will progress. This war has been fought with more uncertainty than what is associated with most conventional wars. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov appeared confident and even aggressive, probably anticipating a military victory in the near future. The two G20 meetings in India reflected that this war is unlikely to come to a quick end. Even if it does, a ceasefire by itself will hardly be sufficient. The larger standoff between NATO and Russia will probably flow into an intense cold war with Russia and China ensconced in one camp and various combinations lined against them.

It can’t get more complex, but India has done a fine job under the circumstances. Such events are judged not only by joint statements but also by the many connections that emerge and allow for fresh thinking.

Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd)

Former Commander, Srinagar-based 15 Corps. Now Chancellor, Central University

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