Five Keys Takeaways From the G20 Summit in Delhi

India is riding high on the success of building consensus at the G20 summit in Delhi for the New Delhi Declaration, but there are other contenders too for the title of 'voice of the global south'.

Bucking predictions that the divisions in the G20 over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine were too deep and wide to forge consensus for a joint declaration at the leaders’ summit in Delhi, negotiators of India, working together with teams from other countries, pulled off the New Delhi Declaration.

Here are some takeaways from the summit.

1. A successful Delhi summit

India is riding high on the success of building consensus at the G20 summit in Delhi for the New Delhi Declaration. This was achieved by arriving at a formulation that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine does not need to be explicitly mentioned. Instead, the topic that has haunted the world for 18 months and proved to be the most divisive issue at the G20 – even at the G20 ministerial meetings during the Indian presidency – was languaged over in a manner that was acceptable to Russia and China. Unlike in last year’s Bali Declaration in which Russia was described as the aggressor and asked to withdraw its troops from Ukraine fully and unconditionally, the New Delhi Declaration called it “the war in Ukraine”. There was no condemnation of Russia either, unlike in Bali.

The consensus reflected an eagerness in the Western bloc to prevent the impression of a breakdown of the G20 in India, a country that the US is wooing assiduously for its geopolitical goal of containing China. The US and other Western members of the G20 agreed to the watering down of the language on the war to help India score a diplomatic victory.

As an EU diplomat told The Hindu, it helped too to avoid unfavourable comparisons with the China-dominated BRICS – despite being projected as “fractious”, the grouping managed a joint declaration at its summit last month.

The return gift to the West was the announcement during one of the G20 summit sessions of an ambitious economic corridor linking the EU, Middle East and India physically by rail and waterways, and to economically through trade and digital infrastructure and politically bring the three together, a geopolitical rival to the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. US President Joe Biden called it “a really big deal”, but there is no timeline to its completion and no details are available yet about the funding. It is to include India, Saudi Arabia (with whom the US is trying to repair its relations), the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Israel and the European Union.

India’s presidency is now seen as the point at which the G20’s agenda began to transition from being set and directed by the wealthy G7 nations that have dominated it from inception to become more representative of the developing world.

Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, the head of the Russian delegation, said the summit was a success for India as well as the Global South, the world’s developing countries. “The Global South’s position in the talks helped prevent the G20 agenda from being overshadowed by Ukraine,” he told a press conference. “India has truly consolidated G20 members from the Global South.”

2. Weakening on Russia

The summit declaration not only reflected the developing world’s position on the war, it may also be an early signal on a shift in the US and the West. Western media noted the softening of language as “a further signal that as Joe Biden faces an election year, Ukraine is perceptibly slipping down his list of foreign policy priorities as the need grows to nurture alliances to contain China in the Indo-Pacific”.

The US has poured billions of dollars into the Ukrainian war effort. But with Russia proving it cannot be defeated in the battlefield and the Ukrainians unable to demonstrate a win in the last nine months, public fatigue is beginning to show in the US.

US and European officials publicly defended the language on the Ukraine war, and were emphatic that it was not a victory for Russia. White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters the summit declaration “does a very good job of standing up for the principle that states cannot use force to seek territorial acquisition or to violate the territorial integrity and sovereignty or political independence of other states”.

French President Emmanuel Macron said the G20 declaration had isolated Russia. He said the G20 is not necessarily a forum for political discussions where diplomatic progress can be expected on the war in Ukraine. “We are here to talk about economic topics and the climate (crisis). G20 should not get stuck on these issues,” he said.

But the sense that western pressure on Russia had eased was evident in the Russian foreign minister’s triumphant tone. “We were able to prevent the west’s attempts to ‘Ukrainise’ the summit agenda,” Lavrov said.

Ukraine, insecure about being possibly abandoned, senses the downgrading better than anyone else, which is why it was quick to denounce the Declaration as “nothing to be proud of”.

3. Other contenders to “voice of the Global South”

Regardless of the myriad reasons for the Delhi summit’s success, if the excessive projection of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in billboards across the capital and in every state where the G20 officials held meetings ahead of the summit were any indication, the achievement of papering over the geopolitical divide is certain to be projected by the Modi government and the BJP in the upcoming election season as a victory for Modi and India’s acceptance as the “vishwaguru” of the world and leader of the “global south”.

However, a Modi-led India is not alone in claiming to be the leader of the developing world. This space is crowded. The New Delhi Declaration would not have been possible had it not been for the support India received from Brazil, Indonesia and South Africa. In his press conference on Saturday, external affairs minister S. Jaishankar named these countries with which India had a “strong history of working together” as he thanked all members for their efforts to bring a consensus. These countries also represent the reality that the global South is not a monolith and each has its own ambitions on the global stage. Indonesia held the 2022 G20 presidency, and using its ASEAN presidency, has taken the lead to resolve the failure in Myanmar. With a population of 280 million, it is the largest Muslim country, and the fourth most populous country in the world. It takes pride in having overthrown a US-backed corrupt military ruler and established itself as a democracy – the world’s third largest – that takes pride in its ethnic and religious diversity.

Indonesia’s economy is growing at a steady clip. Unlike India, it continues to take inspiration from its non-aligned past, as well as from its independence leader first President Sukarno, and uses its strategic location in the Malacca straits to do business with both China and the US, declining to be part of any camp.

Brazil, which takes over the chair of the G20 from India later this year, is the sixth most populous country in the world with (population 217 million), and is the most influential country in Latin America. Its leftist president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known as Lula, is a big hitter in the global arena. A firm multilateralist who believes in diplomacia activa e altiva (a foreign policy that is active and prominent), he has begun undoing his predecessor Jair Bolsanaoro’s insular foreign policy and restoring Brazil’s place in the world, as an influential voice of the developing world. ‘Brazil is Back’ is his foreign policy slogan. Indeed, he was an early claimant for the “voice of the Global South” in his previous terms from 2003-2010, when he spearheaded efforts to strengthen BRICS and Brazil’s place in it.

An aspirant for a permanent seat in the United Nations like India, Brazil has taken a neutral stance over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It supported a US-sponsored UN resolution in February 2022 demanding that Russia withdraw its troops from Ukraine, but Lula has also criticised the US – during a visit to China – for “encouraging” Ukraine. Like Modi, Lula wants to be seen as making efforts to end the war. He has called for diplomatic efforts in the form of a “peace club” of neutral nations to broker an end to the war.

Lula’s commitment to reverse the plunder of the Amazon rainforest, 60% of which falls in Brazil, makes him a valuable partner of the West on climate change mitigation.

The world will be watching to see how Brazil’s presidency unfolds. In his speech at the summit, Lula identified “inequality” as the root cause of all the problems facing the world, and has already outlined the priorities for the Rio summit: social inclusion and fight against hunger; energy transition and sustainable development; the reform of global governance institutions. Two task forces will be created – Global Alliance against Hunger and Poverty and the Global Mobilisation against Climate Change.”

4. AU membership

The entry of the African Union is seen as one of the most significant outcomes of the Delhi summit. India takes credit for backing the membership of the Union which is a grouping of all 55 African countries, which have a combined GDP of $2.99 trillion. The membership, sought by the AU for seven years, was welcomed by Senegal President Macky Sall, the previous AU chair who helped to push for membership.

But what the AU can do for the continent as a G20 member will depend on the extent to which it can forge common positions between its members, which have differing economic sizes, priorities and geopolitical agendas. Questions about AU’s leadership have always dogged the grouping, especially on questions of peace and security in the continent.

It will also depend on how South Africa, one of the biggest economies in the continent which also aspires to a permanent UNSC membership, perceives the impact of the new entrant on its standing in the grouping. A commentator on South Africa Broadcasting Corporation even suggested the G20 had “sent a message” to President Cyril Ramaphosa by making the AU a member.

5. China’s silent presence

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s decision to stay away from the summit, and downgrade China’s participation to the level of Premier Li Qiang, was a sign that despite the bonhomie of the consensus at the Delhi Declaration, the world’s geopolitical divide remains.

India, with its close embrace of the US despite a careful balancing act, is right in the middle of it. Ahead of the summit, a Chinese think tank affiliated to the Ministry of State Security accused Delhi of using its G20 presidency to to bring geopolitical “private goods” on the global agenda, an apparent reference to the holding of summit meetings in Arunachal and J&K.

But China also signed off on the consensus document, messaging it was not making itself available for the “spoiler” tag. Premier Li did not offer any comments on the Declaration. And against its reported earlier objections to India’s use of the Sanskrit phrase ‘Vasudaiva Kutumbakam‘, Beijing seems to have decided to deploy the phrase for its own purposes.

“Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, a Sanskrit phrase from ancient Indian scriptures, means “the world is one family”. The theme of the Indian G20 Summit – “One Earth, One Family, One Future” in English – underscores the expectation that countries will support each other in pursuing growth. Mutual assistance in pursuing growth as “One Family” is more imperative nowadays,” Xinhua, the Chinese state news agency, said in a commentary on the summit, arguing that it was the US’s “high fence, small yard” protectionist policies that were causing the global instability.

Nirupama Subramanian is an independent journalist.