It was never going to be a smooth rider at this year’s Group of 20 summit in India.
The just-concluded conclave had notable officials missing — China’s Xi Jinping, who has never missed a G20 meeting since taking power in 2012, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who skipped the summit for a second consecutive year since the invasion of Ukraine.
Relations between India and China remain frosty, and many people were worried whether the two presidents’ absence – especially Xi’s – would affect the future and relevance of the G20, particularly if the leaders were unable to reach a final communique.
Those concerns were partly eased when leaders of member countries managed to adopt a final declaration on Saturday, though only by producing the most bland statement possible on Ukraine. It did not condemn the Russian invasion of the country and simply “recalled” the statement that was made in the G20 declaration in Bali last year.
It referenced United Nations resolutions and the need for territorial borders to be respected. This surely made some Western officials uneasy.
On Sunday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, deputising for Putin at the summit, declared it “a success” and thanked countries of the Global South for maintaining a consolidated position on Ukraine. Russian negotiator Svetlana Lukash told journalists in New Delhi the joint declaration was “balanced” and welcomed by Moscow. She said BRICS countries — Brazil, India, China and South Africa, apart from Russia — and other allies contributed to the “balanced” declaration.
Although Russia was clearly satisfied with the outcomes, Western diplomats may believe it’s a price that was worth paying. They need to keep the G20 operational. Many Western countries, concerned about China’s rising power, want New Delhi — a strategic counterweight to Beijing — to be able to claim this summit was a great success.
International aid agency Oxfam called the summit “uninspiring and underwhelming” with no action being taken to tackle poverty, inequality and climate change.
To be sure, the summit had words on restructuring the global financial system that was devised in the Bretton Woods Conference at the end of World War II, which most international experts believe is outdated. The conclave spoke of the possibility of reform but there are no timelines or an action plan.
The same applies to global debt. Many countries are struggling and are on what the UN calls “debt row”. Relief is needed with provisions put in place for those countries, but there were no concrete steps announced.
The UN spokesman said the body was not in the business of providing a line by line report card on the G20’s decisions. But despite that very diplomatic approach, the UN did say it was unhappy with the outcome on climate change.
The G20 nations are responsible for 80 percent of the world’s emissions. Yet, there is no commitment to phase out coal, and no timelines have been created.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told Al Jazeera at the start of the meeting that he had ambitious new goals for the G20 — for wealthy nations to reach net zero by 2040 or sooner, and developing countries by 2050. But two days later, he does not have those commitments in the final declaration.
The G20 was originally set up as an economic body of finance ministers in 1999. It has no permanent secretariat and there is no one to do checks on how things are being delivered. Since it is a multilateral grouping, change is slow and incremental. That, many experts fear, won’t deliver the progress needed to solve the huge problems humanity faces.
Guterres told Al Jazeera in the interview he feared a great fracture would ensue – the world dividing into two blocs, one of them led by the United States and the other by China. It would develop into a system where there are two major currencies on each side of this divide, two internets and two different economies. He said this would be a disaster for the world.
The question is – are we already getting there? Are we slowly moving to a world where we have the US and its G7 allies on one side, and the BRICS bloc (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) on the other? Xi took centre stage in South Africa for the BRICS summit last month and chose to miss the G20; some fear that may be the way it is going.
To be sure, there are many countries that are trying to keep a foot in both camps, with India being an example. That means it may not yet be a done deal that the world is splitting in the way that some fear.
The next G20 summit is in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in November 2024, with President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva taking over the presidency. In that role, Brazil will have a fair bit of sway on the agenda and will hope to influence the group.
For the first time, the African Union will have a seat at the summit, representing 55 countries, including some of the poorest in the world. Lula’s political positions are well-known, so perhaps issues of inequality, poverty and reform of the world’s finances will be pushed even harder next year.