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Multilateralism on the rise

Key takeaways from the latest G20 summit in India

September 17, 2023


ndia remained central to the so-called Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), founded in 1961. It tried to generate the impression that it preferred neutrality vis-à-vis the USA-USSR Cold War. It interacted with both the super powers, more with Soviet Russia under the Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation that they signed in August 1971. With the end of the Cold War in 1991, India started opening up with all potential players in the regional and global politics. This included the USA, Saudi Arabia, Russia and China. India thus followed a policy of multilateralism emphasised by Shashi Tharoor, the former external affairs minister, in the post-Cold War period whereby membership in the regional and international organisations became a top priority. Unsurprisingly, India joined the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the Group of Twenty, commonly known as the G20, the BRICS, Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and some other regional forums.

The G20 has emerged as a prominent international forum that brings together leaders from the world’s major economies to discuss and coordinate various aspects of global economic governance. It was established in 1999 in response to the financial crises of the late 1990s and has since evolved into a critical platform for addressing global economic challenges. It initiated from the recognition that the Group of Seven (G7), consisting of the world’s most industrialised nations, was insufficient for addressing the complex and interconnected nature of global economic issues. Till the summit held in New Delhi last week, the G20 comprised 19 individual countries and the European Union (EU), thus representing a diverse cross-section of the global economy. Its member countries include some key extra-regional players such as China, Germany, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States.

It represents two-thirds of the world’s population, 75 percent of global trade and 85 per cent of the global GDP. Since its inception, the G20 has focused on a wide range of global concerns such as financial (in)stability, trade issues and climate crisis.

Organisationally, the G20 summit is a significant forum for realising international cooperation, bringing together leaders from the world’s major economies to address pressing global issues. The G20 summit is held annually with a rotating presidency, which India handed over to Brazil last week. Moreover, the group does not have a permanent secretariat and is supported by the previous, current and future holders of the presidency, known as the troika. Currently, the troika consists of Indonesia, Brazil and India.

With regard to themes of the 18th summit concluded in New Delhi last week, the G20 carried a meta theme titled “One Earth, One Family, One Future” whereby important issues such as food security, climate and energy, development, health and digitalisation were deliberated. In practice, however, the summit did not look like ‘one family’ due to divergent interests of the core countries particularly the USA, Russia and China. The latter had Premier Li Qiang attend the proceedings. President Xi Jinping’s absence was noticed by the world leaders as well as Indian and international media. Importantly, Russian President Vladimir Putin also stayed away. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov represented his country, which is at war with Ukraine. The latter received institutional attention in terms of the language to be used to describe Russian action in that country. Compared to the harsh language used in the declaration of the previous summit, this time around the American and European leadership tactically consented to a softening of the text where Russia was not condemned categorically. The US is wooing India for its geopolitical objectives in South Asia and the Indo-Pacific, thus, not turning the summit into a failed exercise hosted by Modi-led India. The key EU countries are also constrained by the geo-economic realities in terms of Russian energy potential for the European market productivity, as alternatives are hard to come by in the short run.

The G20, comprising 19 individual countries and the European Union, represents a diverse cross-section of the global economy. It represents two-thirds of the world’s population, 75 percent of global trade and 85 per cent of global GDP.

The Chinese side seemed fine with this aspect of the document, too. After all, China is a ‘comprehensive’ strategic partner of Putin-led Russia.

Another important outcome of the summit was related to the establishment of India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC). The IMEC is supposedly a transnational rail and shipping route stretching across two continents where the United States expects to energise economic development through improved connectivity and economic integration among (South) Asia, the Arabian Gulf and Europe. US President Joe Biden has termed it “a really big deal.” However, no timeframe has been provided with regard to its practical initiation and completion. Some critics were quick to project the IMEC as a counterweight to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that observed its 10th anniversary this year. Though, the IMEC reflects the US desire, on the one hand, to engage India, the Gulf economies and the EU commercially yet the former wants, on the other, to contain China geopolitically. How the IMEC turns up depends on its operationalisation. Nonetheless, given the current trajectory of commercial relations among China, India, the Gulf economies and the EU, the probability of IMEC working against the Chinese interests seems very low.

Last but not the least, the G20 members have expanded the group through the inclusion of an important regional organisations, namely, the African Union (AU). The AU, established in 2002, consists of 55 member states from the African continent. Its inclusion will certainly make G20 more inclusive, pluralist and emphatic in terms of addressing socioeconomic and climatic issues being faced by billions of people hailing from the Global South.

However, the future course the G20 depends on the behaviour and role of the key countries particularly the US, China and Russia. Shifting strategic alignments in the Middle East, South Asia and the Indo-Pacific will impact regional geo-economics connected, to large extent, to China’s BRI currently. This means that China, with increasing economic clout (extra)regionally, would have a comparable say in the working of not just G20 but also the BRICS, the AIIB and the SCO. As far as India is concerned, G20 and other forums would certainly accord it space for voicing its foreign policy goals. However, given the economic disparities and social cleavages at home, India has still got a long way to go. Pakistan, for its part, needs to learn multilateralism: engage all potential players to advance its interests regardless of ideology and geography. Saudi Arabia, Iran and the UAE are doing exactly that in pursuing (economic) ties with China, the USA, the EU, India and traditional rivals.

The writer has a PhD in political science from Heidelberg University and a post-doc from UC-Berkeley. He is a DAAD, FDDI and Fulbright fellow and an associate professor. He can be reached at ejaz.bhattygmail.com