India steers G20 through turbulent times

India will need to work upon Russia to ensure that the formulation accepted and adopted in Bali related to Ukraine is not again brought into question as the members proceed towards the Summit to be held six months from now, writes Ashok Sajjanhar

India assumed the Presidency of G20 (the Group of 20 countries comprising 19 large economies and the European Union) for 2023 from Indonesia on 1st December, 2022. While accepting this responsibility in Bali in November, 2022, PM Narendra Modi said that India’s G20 presidency will be ‘’inclusive, ambitious, decisive and action-oriented.’’

Even before it had formally taken over the Presidency, India invited the envoys of all G20 countries and guest invitees based in Delhi to a brainstorming and briefing session in end-November, 2022 about India’s G20 priorities to Swaraj Deep (formerly Havelock Island) in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The first sherpa meeting was organized in the first week of December, 2022 in Udaipur, Rajasthan. This set the stage for the rapid flurry of meetings which followed soon thereafter. India has set a blistering pace by organizing several meetings in different parts of the country from Chennai to Chandigarh and from Gujarat to Guwahati in just 3 months of its Presidency.

One of the most high-profile events held so far has been the Foreign Ministers’ meeting (FMM) that took place in New Delhi on 1st and 2nd March, 2023. 27 out of the 29 invited foreign ministers (Japan and Republic of Korea were represented by their Vice Minister/Minister of State as the FMs were occupied with some parliamentary responsibilities in their capitals) participated in these deliberations. This is the largest count of foreign ministers to have attended any previous FMM. In addition, because this meeting was arranged to coincide with the flagship Ideas Event, the Raisina Dialogue, New Delhi witnessed the presence of the Italian Prime Minister as well as a large number of other ministers and senior officials from around the world. Representatives of 13 International Organisations also took part in the deliberations.

The gathering provided a unique opportunity to India and other participants to not only take decisions under the aegis of the G20 on the major challenges confronting the world but also to hold discussions on the side-lines of the events to advance their regional and bilateral interests. The opportunity proved to be particularly valuable for India as it was able to interact bilaterally with the senior leadership of not only USA, Russia, Europe, China and others, but also arrange meetings of smaller groupings like the QUAD to identify and promote further initiatives and cooperation.

Why is G20 important?

The importance of the G20 lies not only in the fact that together it accounts for 85% of the global gross product, 75% of international trade, and two thirds of the world population but even more so because it is the premier forum to take decisions and set the direction for dealing with the challenges confronting the global economy.

Because the G-20 is a forum, its agreements or decisions are not legally binding but they exercise a profound influence on countries’ policies and set the stage for global cooperation.

The Setting

The Foreign Ministers’ meeting was held at a particularly difficult and uncertain moment in international politics and economics.

The world has been subjected to huge instability and volatility over the last 3 years inter-alia due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict has had global implications through high inflation, shortages of food, fertilizers and energy, unsustainable debts, supply chain disruptions and more. In addition, the challenges of climate change, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals(SDGs) and others continue to unsettle the global economy and community. One year has elapsed since the war started but no end appears to be in sight. In fact, war on the ground has distinctly escalated and positions have hardened on both sides. If the circumstances were challenging when the Bali Summit took place last year in November, they have become even more intractable after a lapse of more than 100 days of that meeting. Just before the Foreign Ministers met, analysts witnessed the spectacle of the Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors not being able to agree to a consensus document in Bengaluru because of differences on a common language on the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

This did not come as a surprise. India’s Presidency was never expected to be an easy cake-walk but it was somewhat surprising that Russia (and China) would walk back from the position their leaders had adopted at Bali in November, 2022! If the western countries share some blame for keeping the Russia-Ukraine conflict squarely at the center of discussions of the G20 deliberations, Russia (and China) share at least the same if not more blame for the hiccups experienced in arriving at a consensual document at the conclusion of the Foreign and Finance Ministers’ meetings.

The Meeting 

No consensus document could be issued at the conclusion of the FMM. This was due to a wide gap in the positions of the Western nations including the US on one side and Russia and China on the other. Dr S Jaishankar, EAM and Chair of the deliberations came out with a Chairman’s Summary while clarifying that there was total agreement on the substantive issues discussed in the meeting.

At the start of the meeting, the participants were addressed by PM Modi virtually. He urged the ministers to ‘’draw inspiration from India’s civilizational ethos’’ and focus not on what divided them but on what united them. He spoke about the challenges that the ministers should address. These ‘’included the impact of the pandemic, the lives lost in natural disasters, the breakdown of global supply chains, debt and financial crisis, challenges of resilience in healthcare systems, in infrastructure, in economies.’’

He encouraged the Foreign Ministers to trust in their ‘’collective wisdom and ability, and to rise above their differences.’’ PM Modi emphasized the importance of giving a voice to the global South as the world was seeing several countries regressing on their Sustainable Development Goals pathway. Countries which were most affected by global warming were experiencing unsustainable debt and therefore, it was particularly important to hear them. PM Modi advised the Ministers to achieve progress where they could and not allow issues which they could not resolve to come in the way of those that they could.

Issues discussed by the Ministers during the first of the two sessions which spanned over two days ‘’ranged from strengthening multilateralism, ensuring food and energy security, and development cooperation.’’ The second session dealt with counter-terrorism, global skill mapping, humanitarian assistance and disaster response, as well as women-led development. After the deliberations, the G20 ministers agreed to issue a common consensus position on many important issues. This was adopted as a Chair Summary and Outcome Document.

One of the major takeaways was the strong sentiment of the participating countries to strengthen multilateralism in the context of the dramatic changes in the global order. The G20 recognized the essentiality of UN reforms and the need for reinvigorated multilateralism. The important principles of international development cooperation, such as host country ownership, equal partnerships, tailoring such cooperation efforts with local needs etc. were highlighted by the G20. They also touched upon the need for the Multilateral Development Banks, to mobilize additional financing particularly for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

The Outcome Document also stresses the need to have reliable food and fertilizer supply chains as well as resilient and sustainable energy supply chains. The Foreign Ministers unequivocally condemned terrorism in all forms and manifestations and recognized that all acts of terrorism are criminal and unjustifiable. They called for strengthening efforts to deny safe havens to terrorist groups, freedom of operations, movement and recruitment, as well as financial, material, or political support. The G20 also reflected upon the threats arising from the misuse of new and emerging technologies and highlighted the importance of strengthening international cooperation in that regard.

For the first time, the G20 Foreign Ministers considered and discussed the topic of counter narcotics and called for inclusive and strong international cooperation in this regard. They also discussed the topic of global skills mapping in the context of the changing nature of work. They recognized that well-integrated skilled workers benefit not only in their country of origin, but also the destination country where they may happen to be employed. The G20 also accepted the need to strengthen international cooperation in the field of humanitarian assistance and disaster risk reduction. This will be further discussed in the working group on this subject, which has been newly set up by the Indian presidency.

Women-led development is one of the key priorities of the Indian presidency and has been personally highlighted by PM Modi. The Foreign Ministers affirmed the need to put gender equality and empowerment of women and girls including their leadership at the core of their efforts for inclusive recovery.

Important discussions on global health were also held. The Outcome Document highlights the need for strengthening key aspects of global health architecture, support for the pandemic fund, and continued political attention to global health. It stresses the need for implementing the one health approach.

The Foreign Ministers addressed climate action in the context of common but differentiated responsibilities and urged developed countries to fulfill their commitments to deliver on the goal of jointly mobilizing $100 billion per year urgently and through 2025 to tackle climate change.

In spite of the obstacles posed by the divergent positions on the conflict in Ukraine, the G20 Foreign Ministers were able to come to a consensus on addressing the above key challenges.

In accordance with PM Modi’s exhortation, the Ministers appear to have   endeavoured to ensure that the voice of the Global South was heard on the G20 table. India had organized the Voice of the Global South Summit in January this year in which 125 countries participated. The agenda for the Foreign Ministers’ Meeting as well as the Outcome Document significantly advanced the priorities of the Global South.


India can be more than satisfied with the deliberations and results of the G20 FMM held in Delhi. It needs to be recognized that the issue on which consensus could not be reached because of the positions taken by Russia and China is not central to the discussions in the G20. The G20 was elevated to the Summit level in 2008 to deal with the economic and financial challenges confronting the world. As the Chairman’s Summary and the Outcome Document indicate, there was total agreement on the substantive aspects of the final document. The only disagreement was on two paras (3&4) which refer to the Russia-Ukraine conflict which in any case do not fall within the mandate of the G20. As noted above, these two paras were agreed to by all G20 members in Bali. It is disappointing that Russia and China decided to go back on the previous position which their leaders had adopted just over three months ago. India will need to work upon Russia to ensure that the formulation accepted and adopted in Bali is not again brought into question as we proceed towards the Summit to be held six months from now.

India has completed a little more than three months of its Presidency. It has been able to hold all meetings at a very high level of professionalism, both in terms of organization and logistics as well as in substance and content. There is immense excitement amongst the people of the country regarding the G20 meetings being held in different cities and there is huge enthusiasm among central and state governments and agencies in being actively associated with the varied events.

Assuming charge of the G20 at this critical moment has been a huge challenge for India. India has also viewed it as a great opportunity. The world is looking at India with hope and expectation to effectively deal with the turbulence engineered by the Covid-19, Russia-Ukraine conflict, global economic downturn, and climate change. India is committed to reach out to all countries of the North and the South, the East and the West to ensure as PM Modi said at the Bali G20 Summit that ‘’next year (2023) when the G20 meets in the holy land of Buddha and Gandhi, we will all agree to convey a strong message of peace to the world.’’

India’s assumption of the G20 presidency has decisively signaled its emergence as a significant player on the global stage. India, through its bold leadership and prudent policies, has been able to successfully navigate the headwinds it has encountered in recent years. India’s G20 Presidency holds much promise for the world.

(Ashok Sajjanhar is a former Ambassador of India to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia. He is an Executive Council Member at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis and President, Institute of Global Studies. Views expressed are personal and exclusive to India Narrative)

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