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Success or Failure?

While compromises on the language regarding the Ukraine crisis allowed the G20 Summit to maintain basic unity, there is a genuine risk the mechanism could become irrelevant if strategic rivalry takes hold

By Yu Xiaodong Updated Nov.1

When the G20 Summit wrapped up in New Delhi, Indian media hailed it as a major diplomatic victory for the host country. In the run-up to the event, expectations over what the summit could accomplish were low, with suggestions that the meeting could conclude without a formal joint declaration given the divisions between the West and the developing world on the Russia-Ukraine war.  

At the G20 summit held in Indonesia last year, members only worked out a joint statement at the last minute, which stated that “most members strongly condemned the war in Ukraine,” but that “there were other views” as well.  

To the surprise of many, this year, the leaders reached consensus on a joint declaration on the first day, having reached a compromise on the language. The declaration called on all states not “to use force to seek territorial acquisition.”  

“It sends a strong message that only through unity and overcoming differences, can the G20 truly address global issues,” Xu Liping, a senior research fellow of the National Institute of International Strategy (NIIS) at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), told NewsChina.  

“If everyone gets caught up in disputes and excessively magnifies their own interests, and if members become entangled in disputes and prioritize advancing their own agendas and interests, it would weaken the body’s global governance capacity,” Xu said.  

The joint declaration of the New Delhi G20 Summit “reflects China’s proposition and states that the G20 would act in concrete ways through partnerships, sending a positive signal of the G20 working together to tackle global challenges and promote world economic recovery and global development,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning on September 11, adding that China “played a constructive role and always supported the summit in attaching importance to the concerns of developing countries and reaching fruitful outcomes in support of common development.” She stressed that the summit “reaffirms that the G20 is the premier forum for international economic cooperation, not a platform to resolve geopolitical and security issues.” 

Despite these limited achievements, there are concerns that the G20 could become increasingly dysfunctional and irrelevant in global governance, as the group has become a battleground of geopolitical and great power competition during a time of heightened US-China rivalry.  

Rise and Fall of the G20 
Founded in 1999 following the Asian financial crisis in 1997 and 1998, the G20 initially served as a forum for financial ministers and central bank governors of major economies to discuss global economic and financial issues.  

After the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy ignited the global financial crisis in 2008, the mechanism was upgraded to a leaders’ level summit as the crisis laid bare the insufficiency of the G8 of industrialized economies, given its relative decline in contrast to the rise of emerging economies, symbolized by BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa).  

In November 2008, leaders of G20 members, composed of 19 countries and the European Union, gathered for the first time in Washington, DC. Its response to the 2008 global financial meltdown is often lauded as an exemplary collaborative global crisis response.  

When the third G20 Summit was held in Pittsburgh in 2009, US president Barack Obama announced that the G20 would replace the G8, designating it as the “premier forum for international economic cooperation.” The G8 was said to be taking a back seat in global governance in the future, with the G20 serving as the platform of a “new world order.”  

But in reality, the G20’s central role has never truly materialized with the return of geopolitics and great power rivalry in the 2010s. Under the administration of former US president Donald Trump, the US adopted a unilateralist approach to global affairs and launched a trade war against China, kicking off de-globalization trends that threaten the fundamental principles of the G20.  

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the G20’s response was criticized as slow and fragmented as the West refused to waive patent rights to Covid vaccines and was slow to share its vaccine supply. 

Under the administration of President Joe Biden, the US doubled down on its anti-China strategy by reinforcing its alliance system. Unlike Trump, who described the G7 as an “outdated group of countries,” the Biden administration found new purpose in the G7– comprised of the US, UK, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the EU, which regained its significance in US foreign policy, while the G20 is increasingly marginalized in US strategy.  

With a more united position, the US-led West has been trying to dominate the agenda and push through political issues on the platform. This was most noticeable in the 2022 summit in Bali following the breakout of the Russia-Ukraine war.  

Despite host Indonesia’s calls for unity and a focus on resolving global economic problems like inflation and food and energy security, it came under heavy pressure from the West to exclude Russia from the summit. Jakarta eventually chose to extend its invitation to both Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir, though Putin decided not to attend. Zelensky spoke via video address.  

This year, India did not invite Zelen-sky, and the joint declaration also adopted a neutral stance without directly criticizing or mentioning Russia regarding the war in Ukraine.  

The summit also voted to admit the African Union, which includes 55 member states, as a permanent member of the G20. “Admission of the AU undoubtedly enhances the representativeness of the G20, better reflecting the voices and demands of developing countries and enabling the G20 to better respond to global crises,” Xu said.  

But given the divisions between the West and the developing world over issues such as the weaponization of US dollars, it has become clear that the G20 cannot deliver a “new world order” as it was once hoped. Many developing countries looked elsewhere for cooperation. In August, governments across the Global South gathered in South Africa for a historic BRICS summit. The event announced the admission of six new members, including two G20 members, Argentina and Saudi Arabia, along with Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Ethiopia.  

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and African Union (AU) Chairperson Azali Assoumani embrace after the Union is made a permanent member at the 18th G20 Summit, New Delhi, India, September 9, 2023 (Photo by IC)

Strategic Battleground 
According to Jin Canrong, a professor and associate dean at the School of International Studies at the Renmin University of China in Beijing, the problem with the G20 is that the US’s perception of the G20 has changed in the new era of international politics that centers more on conflict and competition.  

“The US is no longer as sincere as it used to be in dedicating itself to macroeconomic policy coordination within the G20,” Jin said in an interview with Chinese media outlet guancha.cn. “US focus has long returned to the G7, but it is concerned that China could become the group’s leader if it does not pay attention to the G20.”  

The result is that the US’s primary objective in participating in the G20 is to suppress China and Russia. “It is why the US has sought to politicize economic issues, encourage bloc confrontation and form cliques within the G20,” Jin added. “It does not genuinely respect multilateralism, but treats it as a tool – using it when it serves their purpose and discarding it when it does not.”  

Jin’s view was partly echoed by Professor Kishore Mahbubani, a former Singaporean diplomat and the dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy of the National University of Singapore.  

In an interview with online magazine Responsible Statecraft, Mahbubani claimed that the primary goal of Biden’s Asian trip was not to attend the G20 but to improve ties with India.  

“The US is courting India ferociously. Paradoxically, the best comparison to make is the US’s ferocious courtship of China to counterbalance the Soviet Union in the 1970s. Today, to counterbalance China, the US is courting India,” Mahbubani said.  

“Realistically, the US does not expect to get much from the G20 Summit in India,” he said.  
During the bilateral talks between Biden and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi held on September 8, the two countries agreed to build “resilient global semiconductor supply chains” and maintain high-level engagements across all dimensions.  

India’s role as the host country of the G20 Summit may also be why the West agreed to make a compromise on the Ukraine issue and why the US called the summit “an absolute success.”  

Following the summit, Biden visited Vietnam on September 11, where he signed a historic agreement to elevate bilateral ties to the status of a comprehensive strategic partnership and pledged to deepen cooperation in cloud computing, semiconductors and artificial intelligence, as well as critical mineral supplies.  

Chinese President Xi Jinping stands with other world leaders for a group photo at BRICS-Africa Outreach and BRICS Plus Dialogue, Johannesburg, South Africa, August 24, 2023 (Photo by Xinhua)

Chinese Premier Li Qiang meets with US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, Great Hall of the People, Beijing, August 29, 2023 (Photo by Xinhua)

Diminishing Role 
The US’s talks with India and Vietnam are both seen as a part of an ongoing effort to decouple from China, especially in the technology sectors.  

By visiting Vietnam, Biden opted to skip the ASEAN Summit and the East Asian Summit, the other two keynote multilateral platforms in the region held in Jakarta, Indonesia from September 11- 14. The White House sent Vice President Kamala Harris to the ASEAN Summit. 

In an opinion published on August 23, Kornelius Purba, a senior editor at the Jakarta Post, attributed Biden’s nonattendance to the US perception that “Jakarta was leaning too much to Washington’s chief competitor Beijing” and said that it “constitutes a humiliation” for Indonesian President Joko Widodo as host.  

As the US looks set to continue its anti-China strategy in the long run, Jin Canrong warned that it poses a perpetual threat to G20’s effectiveness as a global governance body. As a result, the G20 will not be among the priorities of China’s international diplomacy.  

It may explain why Chinese President Xi Jinping chose to pass on the event. China sent Premier Li Qiang to the G20 instead and offered no explanation for Xi’s absence. It marks the first time a Chinese president has missed the leaders’ summit since its inauguration in 2008, and is likely not the last time.  

“China will not abandon it [G20],” Jin said, “but it will concentrate its diplomatic resources to push forward other regional cooperation mechanisms [without the participation of the US], such as BRICS, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Belt and Road Forum, China-Central Asia Summit, China-Arab Summit, and China-Africa Summit,” Jin said.