The 18th G20 summit: When India takes the centre stage of the world

The G20 summit of 2023 is going to be the drumbeat of India’s rising prowess and stature in a world characterised by growing multipolarity.

India is already at the centre of global attention following its successful soft-landing on the lunar surface and the launch of its maiden solar observatory mission. Now it’s time for the much-awaited 18th G20 leaders’ summit that is poised to dominate the headlines in the coming days. India is being the host of the mega multilateral event for the first time, which is scheduled for September 9-10. The city of New Delhi is adorned like never before with delightful floral decorations, colourful lights, beautified roads and impressive graffiti art everywhere to welcome the leaders of nineteen countries and the European Union that constitute the G20 (Group of Twenty) forum of the world’s leading emerging economies.

The New Delhi summit is in fact the culmination of a series of meetings aimed at multilateral agenda-setting on key issues such as the reform of global financial institutions, climate finance, debt stress of developing economies, inclusive development and the special Indian initiative of LiFE (Lifestyle for Environment) along with working group discussions encompassing various aspects of the global economy such as health, infrastructure, education, energy transitions, digital economy, tourism and so on.

Apart from the full members that constitute eighty-five per cent of the global gross domestic product, seventy-five per cent of the global trade and about two-thirds of the world population, there will be nine other invitee countries and also representation from a few other international organisations. India has also been pushing for full membership of the African Union in the forum, a proposal that has resonated with most of the members. At present, South Africa is only G20 member from the continent of Africa.

India’s G20 presidency is centred on the theme of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, meaning “the world is one family”, a phrase borrowed from the ancient Sanskrit text of Maha Upanishad. India’s external affairs minister Dr S Jaishankar aptly remarked, “We have treated the G20 presidency not as an event, but as a national celebration”, something which will go on till the last day of November 2023 when the beacon of G20 presidency is passed on to Brazil.

India assumed the G20 presidency from Indonesia on a rotational basis in December 2022. In the run-up to the summit, the space sector powerhouse and an influential voice of the Global South held nearly 200 meetings across its 50 cities, showcasing its vibrant culture and rich heritage to the world. Through the G20 deliberations, India also tries to extend its expertise in the fields like digital technology innovation, e-governance and renewable energy for the benefit of the rest of the world.

Notable absentees

There have been seventeen G20 summits since 2008 with one being in the virtual mode in 2020. Not all leaders are able to attend the summit this time and the level of attendance of leaders varies from year to year. Among the attendees of the 2023 summit include U.S. President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and French President Emmanuel Macron. While Russian President Vladmir Putin has conveyed the message of his inability to attend the summit directly to his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will be attending on the former’s behalf.

China will be represented by Premier Li Qiang instead of President Xi Jinping. The Chinese President has attended all G20 summits since the forum was raised to the leaders’ level, barring the 2021 Rome summit, owing to strict Covid restrictions at home. The President of Mexico, who has not attended any summit since 2018, will skip the New Delhi summit as well. The Chinese President’s absence also dims the prospect of a Biden-Xi meeting which could have been held on the sidelines amid mounting geopolitical tensions between U.S. and China in the Indo-Pacific region, so do the prospect of a Modi-Xi summit amid continuing standoff along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China.

However, the absence of any particular leader will not affect the pre-planned agenda of the summit in any way. It is notable that unlike the G7 or any other closed economic forums, G20 has both developed and developing countries as its members. The idea of G20 as an international economic forum has its origins in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis in the late-1990s, which was later upgraded to the summit level in 2008.

A long way ahead for a consensus

The G20 summit will also be an occasion for key bilateral meet-ups between leaders. Among the much-awaited interactions include the host leader Prime Minister Modi’s interactions with President Biden of the U.S. and Prime Minister Sunak of the UK. While Prime Minister Modi had met with President Macron of France earlier this year, in July, during his visit to the key EU member-state as guest of honour for the Bastille Day parade of 2023, he has briefly met with President Xi of China during the 2023 BRICS summit in South Africa and President Putin of Russia during the 2022 Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Uzbekistan, where Prime Minister Modi famously pointed out in the presence of the Russian leader that this is “not the era of war”, emphasising upon the need for dialogue and diplomacy in the Ukraine crisis.

It is also noteworthy that President Putin visited New Delhi just two months before the initiation of his so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine, a contentious issue that continues to hinder consensus in G20 deliberations since last year. Several Western countries want to include the issue of conflict in Ukraine in the G20 outcome documents and the final joint statement as they are of the view that it has an impact on the global economy from the angle of food and energy security. China, on the other hand, doesn’t consider G20 as an appropriate forum to discuss issues of “geopolitical” nature.

The Russian Ambassador to India Denis Alipov made a comment ahead of the summit that the Indian presidency is experiencing strong pressure from some countries which, in Russia’s opinion, has “hijacked the G20 agenda”, hinting at the U.S.-led West, by making the Ukrainian crisis as one of the topics of discussion and by trying to include it in the outcome statements, while Foreign Minister Lavrov insisted that Russia will oppose the final declaration if its position is “not reflected” in it. The G20 Sherpas, the official negotiators from the member countries and personal emissaries of the leaders, are trying hard to prevent a deadlock on the joint statement and to reach a consensus that is agreeable to all.

India, being a multi-aligned country that participates in both U.S.-led forums such as the Quad along with simultaneous participation in Russia and China led forums such as the BRICS and the SCO can act as a great leveller in the contemporary global game of geopolitics and geoeconomics. The G20 summit is going to be the drumbeat of India’s rising prowess and stature in a world characterised by growing multipolarity. Today, there are powers that are willing to share the centre stage with India and also countries that are reluctant to do so. Whatever the case may be, India’s rise is steadily placed on the upward trajectory, of which the forthcoming G20 summit is only one instance to look forward to.

Bejoy Sebastian
Bejoy Sebastian
Bejoy Sebastian writes on the contemporary geopolitics and regionalism in eastern Asia and the Indo-Pacific. His articles and commentaries have appeared in Delhi Post (India), The Kochi Post (India), The Diplomat (United States), and The Financial Express (India). Some of his articles were re-published by The Asian Age (Bangladesh), The Cambodia Daily, the BRICS Information Portal, and the Peace Economy Project (United States). He is an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC), New Delhi, where he acquired a post-graduate diploma in English journalism. He has qualified the Indian University Grants Commission's National Eligibility Test (UGC-NET) for teaching International Relations in Indian higher educational institutions in 2022. He holds a Master's degree in Politics and International Relations with first rank from Mahatma Gandhi University in Kottayam, Kerala, India. He was attached to the headquarters of the Ministry of External Affairs (Government of India) in New Delhi as a research intern in 2021 and has also worked as a Teaching Assistant at FLAME University in Pune, India, for a brief while.