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Can Indonesia and India get the
G-20 to walk the talk?

The Straits Times (Singapore)
Syed Munir Khasru
November 29, 2021


Two major Asian countries – Indonesia and India – will soon have a rare back-to-back opportunity to exercise global leadership and focus attention on the pressing needs of the developing world.

Indonesia, which assumes the Group of 20 (G-20) presidency on Wednesday, has named global health, energy transition and digital transformation as its three priorities. India takes over the helm in 2023.

Both countries will be in a position to reframe the global discourse on development and multilateral trade at a time when resources are squeezed by the pandemic and climate change-related pressures. There is also a need to reboot flagging South-South cooperation.

Indonesia has chosen “Recover Together, Recover Stronger” as the theme of its G-20 presidency, which reflects President Joko Widodo’s goal of encouraging collective efforts for global economic recovery. Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi at a briefing for foreign media late last Friday, gave a glimpse of what Indonesia hopes to achieve: “We will work as hard as we can to assume this responsibility and bring benefit not only for the G-20 but also to developing and least developed countries.”

Indonesia has several natural assets to help it push the agenda of the Global South as the G-20’s next president. It is the world’s third-largest democracy, the largest Muslim-majority country, the largest economy in South-east Asia, and home to the fourth-largest population in the world. Having reduced poverty by more than half since 1999, Indonesia is no stranger to the struggles of national development.

As a leading member of Asean, it is also an experienced hand in regional cooperation and multilateralism. Indonesian Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati was the managing director of the World Bank in 2010.

It helps too that politically, Indonesia enjoys good strategic relationships with the United States, China and Russia.

It is to be expected that at the next G-20 Leadership Summit in Bali, the two Cs – Covid-19 economic recovery efforts and climate-related issues – will be priority items on the agenda.

Indonesia has first-hand experience of the impact of both. It was demoted from an upper-middle-income country to a lower-middle-income country in July as a result of the pandemic. Climate change threatens Indonesia’s coastal zones and has a myriad other spillover effects on matters such as public health and housing. In July, during the second round of the G-20 Sherpa Meetings, Ambassador Dian Triansyah Djani from Indonesia pressed for greater support for programmes such as future pandemic risk mitigation, food security, human resource development, digitalisation, women’s empowerment and energy transition to renewables.

The Delhi Summit provides India an opportunity to build on the momentum for post-pandemic recovery, climate action and sustainable development. As the fourth major contributor to carbon emissions, it will be interesting to see how India handles proceedings of the 2023 Leadership Summit.

While having Indonesia and India in leadership positions are a boost to the Global South, one should also not underestimate the challenges ahead.

Formed in 1999, amid the Asian financial crisis, the G-20, comprising 19 countries and the European Union, represents two-thirds of the world’s population and 80 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP). The forum’s initial objectives were to promote financial regulation and policy coordination for stabilising the global economy.

However, it suffers from a rich-poor divide, with the wealthier G-7 members tending to dominate the agenda and the less well-off members unable to build a coherent development agenda.

This year, the Italian G-20 presidency put equitable vaccine distribution, international aid, gender equality and easing trade restrictions on its agenda. But the results were less than stellar.

The absence of China’s President Xi Jinping and Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin amid growing geopolitical tensions was glaring. The post-summit declaration also lacked a well-thought-out strategy for mass immunisation of deprived populations. The G-7 also baulked at waiving intellectual property rights for vaccine production.

Many of the G-20’s difficulties can be traced to the absence of an enforcement mechanism. Also, unlike international bodies like the United Nations or the World Bank, the G-20 does not have a permanent secretariat and regular full-time staff.

While having an inclusive membership, the G-20 club has so far failed to generate wider support for measures to tackle issues such as ensuring equitable vaccination and reforming the Bretton Woods institutions.

The start of an annual disbursement of US$100 billion (S$137 billion) in climate finance for developing countries has shifted from last year to 2025 despite the sum accounting for only 0.2 per cent of the developed countries’ GDP.

A paradigm shift is needed to transform the G-20 into a political and economic platform that walks the talk and not only talks about the walk.

The journey ahead will not be easy but the two big Asian members do have the opportunity to pave the way and provide momentum for the G-20 presidencies of Brazil in 2024 and South Africa in 2025 to deliver more for the Global South. The question is, can Indonesia and India rise to the occasion and inject the necessary leadership and dynamism to a platform that is yet to come of age?

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