As the world witnesses the three big Cs of concern – climate change, conflict, and COVID-19 –cooperation among major global powers has become an unavoidable imperative. This was the geopolitical climate in which India received the G20 presidency from Indonesia after the 2022 summit in November. Although G20 began in 1999 as a common economic forum for the world’s 20 biggest economies, it now encompasses a range of global and geopolitical issues.
While India did not host the G20 Summit in Bali, major powers, including the United States under the Biden administration, recognized its role in building a consensus. As India commences its presidency, many have called for India to work towards enhancing peace and security and speak on behalf of poor countries unrepresented at the G20. Given this range of expectations, New Delhi should focus on building a consensus on current challenges like the Russia-Ukraine war, climate change, and post-pandemic recovery. It should also provide leadership for future challenges, such as the loss of trust in multilateral institutions and cementing digital public infrastructure.
India and the G20 Summitry
India assuming the G20 presidency is significant in several ways. First, the G20 has been chaired by developing countries only four times in the past – Mexico in 2012, China in 2016, Argentina in 2018, and most recently, Indonesia in 2022. Second, in a historic first, the G20 troika – the outgoing, current, and next-in-line presidencies, are all developing economies. In the absence of a permanent secretariat, the Troika ensures continuity for the group’s agenda and priorities. Hence, the three powers can use this opportunity for continued emphasis on the developing world’s priorities. Third, the G20 summit shall be the most prestigious diplomatic fete hosted in the country since the Non-Aligned Movement Summit in 1983.
Bridging gaps and finding consensus is not easy in a divided world. The challenge is compounded by major disruptions caused by climate change, the Russia-Ukraine conflict, and COVID-19, including record inflation levels, food and fuel shortages, trade restrictions, and sanctions, forcing major powers to look more inward. However, India has an additional advantage compared to its peers. It has positioned itself aloof of pure alignments yet entangled with major powers through multilaterals and plurilaterals. With a presence in many crucial groupings such as the Quad, IBSA (India-Brazil-South Africa), and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), India has established a mutuality of interests with all the major economies (except China), which it can effectively use during its G20 presidency.
Tackling Today’s Key Challenges
With the G20 presidency, India can scale its unique record and utilize its strategic diplomatic positioning to address the most pressing current global challenges. While India initially took a passive stance on the Russia-Ukraine war, it has slowly transitioned its position, with New Delhi now assuming a silent, behind-the-scenes role in negotiating with Moscow. India not only negotiated with Russia to stop its blockade of Ukrainian grain ships but also stepped in when Moscow was considering shelling the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant. Hence, India was the preferred partner for French President Emmanuel Macron’s efforts to broker peace between the two countries. Indian Prime Minister Modi was also one of the few world leaders to publicly nudge President Putin, telling him that ‘now is not the time for war.’ Even if India cannot end the war completely, it can dial down tensions and reduce the waves of western sanctions through mediation. This will have a positive net effect on global inflation and food and fuel supplies.
Similarly, India should share its experiences and determination in meeting its Paris climate goals. India aims to ensure that 50 percent of its installed electricity capacity comes from renewable energy resources by 2030: a benchmark it can persuade others to emulate. India’s international solar initiative, the International Solar Alliance, now enjoys the support of 122 sun-belt countries. India proposes to mobilize investments of over USD $1 trillion by 2030 through the World Bank and other financial institutions towards this initiative. India has a unique positionality to forge a conversation beyond the binary discourse of economic development versus climate action and reorient the discussion towards economies of scale in decarbonization.
Among emerging economies, India remains a top donor of COVID-19 vaccines. It can encourage other G20 economies to help struggling countries in their respective regions meet their inoculation goals and to pledge more donations to multilateral initiatives. Any mutually-agreeable minimum agreement for vaccine donations between the G20 economies will help stamp out the pandemic.
A Dialogue on Future Challenges
Apart from the immediate challenges, the Indian presidency can provide leadership and innovation in many emerging areas of governance. Notably, India has made considerable progress and has taken the initiative in two emerging areas – disaster resilience and the digital economy.
As the threats of climate change increase, future infrastructure must meet climate risks. India has established the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure (CDRI), a coalition of national governments, UN agencies, development banks, and private sector organizations, to promote the resilience of new and existing infrastructure systems to climate and disaster risks. CDRI intends to set financing and infrastructural norms for global developmental initiatives. Ten out of twenty G20 economies are currently CDRI members, and if the other G20 members are persuaded to participate by expert contact groups, CDRI can become a focal point for setting global norms and a truly global initiative.
Similarly, India is well-placed to spur the debate on secure and effective digital governance. It has successfully implemented programs for digital identity and financial inclusion, such as Aadhar and Jan Dhan; both programs have sparked interest in many developing countries. India’s digital governance solutions, such as the digital vaccine-identification program (COWIN) and unified payment interface (UPI), are attracting many countries as well. As part of its goal to make indigenous solutions globally applicable, India is making some of these platforms open-source for the world to adopt.
India’s thriving private sector also plays a critical role in the global fintech revolution. India ranks 15th on the Global Fintech Index, far ahead of China at the 21st spot. The Indian government, along with the Indian private sector’s considerable experience, allows it to set norms that can make digital governance more efficient and reliable to meet delivery and security targets. Many major powers are severely lacking in the provision of public goods and digital infrastructure; India can use the presidency to push the adoption of its indigenous technology, such as COWIN and UPI, to fill this gap.
Selling ideas, setting norms, and finding common ground in an increasingly polarized world are not easy. Nonetheless, by practicing middle-ground foreign policy through past non-alignment and its current multi-alignment strategy, India is well-placed to mediate, negotiate, and moderate.
In many cases, the lack of acceptance of common solutions is not merely a political question but reflects the inability of a singular policy solution to fit the developmental needs of countries as disparate as Canada and Indonesia. Furthermore, India’s frosty ties with China and its lack of appeal with Latin America are possible challenges to effective G20 leadership. However, with deft diplomacy, New Delhi can build a common framework rooted in basic norms and shared expectations, thereby providing much-needed substance to the G20 summitry.
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