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G20 summit agrees on words but struggles on action

September 11, 2023 at 6:00 pm

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (4th L) attends the MIKTA meeting of Leaders during G20 Leaders’ Summit at Bharat Mandapam in New Delhi, India on September 09, 2023 [TUR Presidency/Murat Cetinmuhurdar – Anadolu Agency]

The Group of 20 major economies reached a hard-fought compromise over the war in Ukraine and papered over other key differences in a summit declaration at the weekend, presenting few concrete achievements in its core remit of responses to global financial issues.

Diplomats and analysts said the surprise consensus in the summit statement on the Russia-Ukraine conflict avoided a split in the group, and the inclusion of the African Union as a new member represented a victory for host, India, and for developing economies, but the rest was disappointing.

“The G20 has been at its best as a multilateral forum when it can forge consensus – not just on language, but on action – to deal with serious global issues, such as global financial crises,” said Michael Froman, President of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations.

“Looking ahead, the focus should be on that, not on the statement per se,” said Froman, a former US trade representative, who has also worked as Washington’s G20 and G8 negotiator.

The summit declaration avoided condemning Russia for the war in Ukraine, but highlighted the human suffering the conflict had caused and called on all states not to use force to grab territory.

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Few had expected the G20 to reach a consensus on the document, let alone on the first afternoon of the two-day summit, as the group had failed to agree on a single communiqué at the 20 or so ministerial meetings this year due to the hardened stance on the war.

A failure to agree on a summit declaration would have signalled that the G20 was split, perhaps irrevocably, between the West on one side and China and Russia on the other, analysts said.

And with Beijing pushing to reshuffle the world order by expanding groupings such as BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, G20 could have ended up becoming irrelevant, they said.

Difficult summit 

G20 was set up as a platform of finance ministers and central bank governors in 1999, to counter the effects of the Asian financial crisis, and the meeting was expanded to include leaders after the global financial crisis in 2008.

Its primary role of coordinating responses to economic issues – including global taxation and helping low-income nations manage their debt burden under the Common Framework in recent years – has been diluted because the need to seek a consensus has led to weak agreements, some analysts said.

This year, resolving differences on the Ukraine war and other issues took up a lengthy 25 days of negotiations, including in the week leading up to the summit, Svetlana Lukash, the Russian G20 sherpa, or government negotiator, was quoted as saying by Russian news agency, Interfax.

“This was one of the most difficult G20 summits in the almost twenty-year history of the forum,” Lukash said.

The G20 process requires consensus on all decisions which means it will pursue the “lowest common denominator”, said Patryk Kugiel, a senior analyst at the Polish Institute of International Affairs in Warsaw.

“Therefore, we do not have any concrete and substantial decisions, commitments, pledges from G20 on any of the pressing global challenges, from climate change to debt,” Kugiel added. “It makes the forum ineffective, even useless.”

At the New Delhi gathering, the leaders agreed to pursue tripling renewable energy capacity globally by 2030 and accepted the need to phase-down unabated coal power.

However, they set no timetable and said the use of coal had to be wound down in line with national circumstances.

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Coal, which is being phased out of the power system in many industrialised nations, is still a vital fuel in many developing economies and may remain so for decades to come.

The meeting also agreed to address debt vulnerabilities of poor countries and strengthen and reform multilateral development banks, but without setting any concrete goals.

There was also no progress on getting Russia to return to the Black Sea initiative, although the declaration called for the safe flow of grain, food and fertiliser from both Ukraine and Russia.

Fear of division, disappointment 

For most major G20 members, though, the summit declaration appeared to be a major gain since it reached a consensus on acceptable language to refer to the war in Ukraine.

Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, who represented Russia at the summit in place of the absent President Vladimir Putin, said India’s presidency, “probably for the first time during the entire G20 existence, has truly consolidated G20 participants from the Global South”.

Diplomats have said negotiators from India, Indonesia, Brazil and South Africa drove the consensus in the summit document.

The US, Germany and Britain all lauded the declaration.

There was no official word from China but its state-run news agency, Xinhua, without referring to the declaration, said in a commentary on Saturday that G20 could still be made to work.

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China’s presence was muted at the meeting, with President Xi Jinping staying away and Beijing represented by Premier Li Qiang, who took his post in March this year.

A French official who was present at the summit said “G20 actually remains a club that’s capable of forging consensus between north and south and east and west”.

Despite the lack of concrete progress, Harsh Vardhan Shringla, India’s chief G20 coordinator, said the meeting did take the group forward.

“The concerns of the developing world are so great that if you failed … they would have to face much greater issues of division and, I would say, even disappointment,” he told Reuters.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.