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India must play to its strengths to lead the G20 through another year of geopolitical challenges

South China Morning Post (Hong Kong)
Syed Munir Khasru
December 10, 2022


On December 1, India took over the G20 leadership from Indonesia. A member of the group since its founding in 1999, India will now preside over the G20 into 2023.

With its entrepreneurial spirit, abundance of talent, and ambitious foray into the global economy, India has solidified its position as a leader among developing economies in guiding international development cooperation and bolstering multilateralism. To be sure, the political and economic difficulties now facing the international community are numerous. The Ukraine war has strained relations between Russia and Western countries, most of which are G20 members. Meanwhile, the sanctions imposed on Russia have negatively affected food, oil and gas prices, holding back post-pandemic global recovery.

Amid such geopolitical divides, getting the leaders at this year’s G20 summit in Bali to sign a single document was an extraordinary feat in itself for host Indonesia. Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s focus on the global economic impact of both the Russian-Ukraine conflict and the pandemic, coupled with the absence of Russian President Vladimir Putin, helped attendees reach a joint declaration.

India similarly aims to develop pragmatic solutions for the well-being of populations worldwide, in the spirit of “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” (the world is one family). The transformation of India’s economy, especially the rise of its green and digital sectors, has shaped India’s vision for global development, while the effects of the pandemic have highlighted the necessity of robust healthcare infrastructure and international cooperation.

G20 is a window for the world’s fifth largest economy to streamline critical global issues, keep the focus on long-term strategic goals, and strengthen North-South and South-South cooperation. It is noteworthy that for four consecutive years, developing economies will be in the driving seat of the G20: Indonesia in 2022, India in 2023, Brazil in 2024 and South Africa in 2025. This provides the space needed to begin work on issues that are key for developing nations, from framing principles for digital payment systems to reforming multilateral development banks.

The thrust of the Indonesian G20 presidency, “recover together, recover stronger”, aimed to push the world towards robust and systemic participation, concentrating on global healthcare architecture, the sustainable energy transition and digital transformation. India can build on this by offering an inclusive vision of prosperity, providing a strong gender lens to the development agenda, and fostering climate action – which appeared to have lost momentum at the recently concluded COP27.

Equally important is the task of connecting the dotted lines between cross-cutting issues like propelling growth while safeguarding environment, promoting the transition from fossil fuels to renewables while strengthening access to electricity for all, and bridging the digital divide while developing a governance ecosystem for the cyber world.

India has the social fabric and intellectual capital to lead and deliver on these vital global issues; the question is whether Indian diplomacy can rise to the occasion to effectively support G20 engagement throughout the year with an inclusive and action-oriented global agenda framework.

In other words, the current G20 troika of Indonesia-India-Brazil have their work cut out in a period marked by the need for post-pandemic recovery and by the fallouts from the Ukraine war.

Given its close relations with both the US and Russia, one of the biggest challenges for India will be to persuade Russia and Ukraine’s Western supporters to retreat from the battleground. If successful, the second obstacle – rising costs, primarily for food, and the subsequent cascade into wider global inflation – is expected to taper down as well.

Meanwhile, the presence of US President Joe Biden and Chinese president Xi Jinping within the G20 gives India a window to promote peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific by persuading the two rivals to agree to some fundamental rules of engagement in the region. From ensuring maritime security in the Indian and Pacific oceans to freer and fairer trade at a time of weakened multilateralism and global recession, there is much for the two giants to discuss in the coming year.

As a host nation located in the heart of the Indo-Pacific, India has a unique opportunity to facilitate one of the most important political discourses within the G20. This will require India to go beyond simply setting an agenda and facilitating meetings; it must pursue effective and backchannel diplomacy away from the fanfare of the media.

India’s commitment to international collaboration, inclusive development, financial stability, and sustainable growth is consistent with its own national objectives and the broader G20 goals. The G20’s recent struggles to agree on basic communiqués, which have negatively affected its ability to operate and maintain the integrity of its core agenda, have led to its credibility being called into question.

India’s diplomatic acumen will be put to the test given the need to hear all perspectives in a severely divided multipolar world, while steering a course for compromise to reach a unified stance on the critical global issues that brought the 20 countries together in the first place.

As the world’s largest democracy in a period of severe geopolitical and economic uncertainty, India has the chance to demonstrate global leadership and statesmanship. Whether India can rise to the occasion remains to be seen.

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