Global rivalries overshadow this week’s gathering of the world’s largest economies in India, deepening wrangles between east and west, north and south not seen in decades. Foreign Editor David Pratt examines what’s at stake 


It’s those that are not present that is most telling. But let’s start with a running order of some that are in attendance. 

US President Joe Biden, UK Prime Minster Rishi Sunak, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, French President Emmanuel Macron, Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed Bin Salman, and Japan’s Fumio Kishida - have all descended on New Delhi for this weekend’s G20 Leaders’ Summit.  

But then, conspicuous by their absence, are those two other powerful world leaders. The first key no-show is Chinese President Xi Jinping who has skipped the high profile geopolitical assembly for the first time since he took power in 2012. 

Last week Beijing revealed that the Chinese delegation would instead be led by the country’s premier, Li Qiang. It’s a far cry from Xi’s early years in power when the Chinese leader was one of the world’s most travelled leaders, endlessly meeting friends and rivals alike. 

The other notable absentee is of course Russian President Vladimir Putin with the Kremlin citing his “busy schedule” as the reason for this year’s absence. Putin missed the summit in Bali Indonesia last year, sending Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as his stand in as he has again for the gathering in Delhi.  

The absence of both Xi and Putin tells us a lot about the myriad of currents undermining this year’s G20 and by default the current state of the volatile and uncertain world in which we live. For while they might not be present Xi and Putin’s influence is sure to be felt. 

Among the most obvious of these currents is Russia’s war in Ukraine. Then there is the ever intensifying rivalry between the US and China. Both issues have all but put the kibosh on so much global dialogue and co-operation.  

Add to this the growing sense of what international observers call ‘multipolarity’ a rather elaborate word with a simple definition whereby power is not dominated by one country but distributed among multiple and you have a fractious mix. 

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As Paul Samson president of the think-tank the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) and a former chair of a G20 working group on the global economy observed these past days, “future historians may look back on 2023 as the year when the world became fully multipolar… where does the G20 fit in, in such a world?” 

In the past, G20 summits have often presented an opportunity for world leaders to reach out across widening differences, but this weekend’s summit could all too easily result in the opposite by reinforcing wrangles between east and west, north and south to an extent not seen in decades. 

To take Xi’s absence alone, some Indian observers are convinced that China wants to spoil India’s showcase event at a time of bilateral friction over their disputed border. India-China relations have been tense ever since a bitter Himalayan frontier clash in June 2020. 


Major tensions

A bilateral meeting between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi - this year’s G20 host - and Xi at the recent BRICS summit in Johannesburg did little to calm the diplomatic waters.  

Beijing is also unhappy with what it considers to be broader issues in their relationship, which include India’s growing diplomatic and economic proximity to the United States. 

Other international analysts among them Josh Lipsky, senior director of the GeoEconomics Centre of the Washington based Atlantic Council, go as far as to suggest that Xi’s absence is even more telling and might even put in question the G20’s “long-term sustainable viability and success”.  

“When the G20 speaks, are they speaking without China’s affirmation, to debt restructuring negotiations, for example?” Lipsky was cited by the Financial Times as recently saying before adding, “that is an existential threat to the future of the G20”. 

It was back in 1999 after the Asian financial crisis that the world's 20 major countries formed the economic grouping on the understanding that crises spilling across borders needed better international economic co-operation to tackle them. 

The bloc accounts for 80% of global gross domestic product (GDP) and 75% of international trade. It includes Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Britain, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Turkey, the United States and the European Union. 

As this year’s hosts India’s G20 theme derives from the Sanskrit phrase “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” which translates as “One Earth, One Family, One Future”. 

But already such are the fracture points among the members that this is a dysfunctional family at best and one that could cast the future of the G20 into doubt.  

To begin with the Russia-Ukraine war has presented the G20 with its biggest test yet even if it’s host Modi has pledged that it won’t overshadow his focus on the needs of developing nations in the so-called Global South. 

While Russia and China oppose blaming Moscow for the war, Western countries, such as Canada, France and the United States, have sought a strong condemnation as a necessary condition for a joint statement. Russia meanwhile has said it won’t go along with anything that doesn’t make its voice heard. 

A draft circulated among members on Friday left blank a paragraph on the geopolitical situation, suggesting that differences remained unresolved.  

But yesterday Reuters news agency reported that G20 delegates had reached a compromise on the language of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine expressing support for “territorial integrity and sovereignty” but were still discussing whether there would be a joint leaders’ statement or a communique at the end of their two-day summit. 


Diverging positions

Since India assumed the G20’s rotating presidency in December, not a single joint communique has resulted from any of the group’s ministerial meetings, owing primarily to diverging positions over the war in Ukraine. 

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Even if the summit does manage to agree on a joint statement or Leaders’ Declaration, it will almost certainly be a watered down version of the already nuanced language on Russia’s aggression in Ukraine agreed at last year’s Bali summit.  

At best Modi would likely settle for much of the same wording but that would not sit well with some developing countries who increasingly lay the blame on the West for escalating the conflict through its supplies of arms and weapons. 

Should the summit end without a statement it would only underline how brittle relations are among the world’s major powers posing questions over the G20’s prospects and tarnishing the image Modi has been trying to cultivate of India as a global problem solver. 

While China and Russia are still dominating much of the G20’s focus in absentia, India is also looking to use its presidency this year to put a spotlight on the so-called Global South. 

As a country with strengthening ties to the Global North, but that faces issues similar to those of the Global South, India has spent this past year promoting itself as a bridge between the two worlds. Issues such as climate change, inclusive economic growth, sustainable development, and food security have dominated the agenda throughout India’s presidency.

Perhaps most significantly India has thrown its support behind a proposal to grant the African Union (AU) full, permanent membership in the G20 a move many international observers see as long overdue. The proposal also has the backing of Brazil, Japan, South Africa, and the US, among other members. 

But some critics of such a move argue that already difficult decision making could become even more unwieldy. Others refute this saying that it would be a move worth making in order to create a more credible global representation. Among such voices is Darren Walker the president of the Ford Foundation and the author of From Generosity to Justice: A New Gospel of Wealth. 

“This dynamic will only mirror the state of global governance itself, which has evolved out of necessity beyond the centralised, exclusionary status quo of the 20th century. The G-21 may be messier than the G-20, but it would also be more credible, since it captures the interests of both the Western-dominated G-7 and the emerging -and expanding -BRICS powers (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa, and several new members),” Walker argued recently in Foreign Policy magazine.  

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Volatile landscape

But Modi’s presentation of India as problem solver does not go down well with many who see him as a divisive figure at home. Championing India’s cause for turning it into a 'developed' nation is all well and good his critics say but how do you reconcile this with managing a volatile political landscape on Modi's own doorstep that some argue is of his own making. While India has been considered by many an exemplary liberal parliamentary democracy among developing nations, this, critics warn, is being slowly eroded by Modi’s brand of Hindu nationalism. 

His Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) efforts to galvanise and elevate Hindus driven by ideological and electoral priorities have marginalised hundreds of millions of Muslims and other minorities in India as second-class citizens. 

To get some measure of how much this permeates Modi’s thinking, critics highlighted Modi’s placard at the opening of the G20 summit which referred to India as "Bharat", raising speculation of a change of name for the South Asian nation. 

The gesture came days after invitations to the summit dinner were sent out in the name of the “President of Bharat”, prompting rumours official usage of the country’s English name would be scrapped. 

India is known by two names: India, used worldwide, and the Sanskrit and Hindi nomenclature of “Bharat.” Is Modi’s government signalling that India should officially be rebranded as Bharat critics asked as use of the name sparked. controversy around the country.   

In preparation for the summit, New Delhi has also gone under a massive – and controversial – “beautification drive” for the event, with many slums bulldozed and their occupants displaced. 

Newly-painted lotus flower murals – the election symbol of the ruling BJP) – have appeared and billboards with Modi’s face line the reworked roads. 

“You’d be forgiven for thinking it was the BJP that was hosting this event, not the government of India,” acclaimed author and activist Arundhati Roy told Al Jazeera. 

Roy is a vocal critic of the Indian government’s treatment of minorities but also turned her criticism these past days on Western leaders cosying up to Modi. A view shared by others who also believe that the West remains stumm because it needs India to contain China.  

“All these Western leaders who speak about democracy – I mean, you can forgive someone like Trump because he doesn’t believe in democracy – but Biden, Macron, all these people who talk about democracy, they know exactly what’s going on here,” insisted Roy. 


India's PR boost

Certainly India’s G20 presidency has helped boost the country’s image in the world in a year when it outgrew China to become the world’s most populous nation and its GDP is among the fastest growing of any major economy. It has also served as a vehicle for the personality cult of Modi domestically, ahead of a general election next year. 

But the G20’s successes it would be fair to say stop there and from the perspective of binding the world together it has certainly been a failure.  

Viewed from a Western perspective the two key topics at the top of the agenda - a co-ordinated approach to climate change and a principled stance against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine - are those where consensus looks least likely.  

If Biden came to Delhi with a pitch to provide more financing to poorer countries, then the EU did so with the intention of giving them more say over how global lenders such as the World Bank are run. That undoubtedly has eased the way a bit in the talks but that’s where the positives end. 

More than anything this summit has revealed the extent to which the great power politics are pulling and pushing the G20 in different directions. This in a nutshell has been a summit of no-show leaders and divisions.

Aside from the dysfunctional UN and despite all its flaws and shortcomings the G20 has often been described as the best forum the international community has. But in light of events in Delhi this weekend that view is now questionable. All is far from well at the high table of global governance.