September 12, 2023
IntelBrief: G-20 Summit Reveals Deep Geopolitical Divisions and Increasing Competition
The recently concluded Group of Twenty (G-20) summit in New Delhi, India, exposed some deep geopolitical divisions among the world’s most advanced economies while also demonstrating trends of increased competition, a focus on nationalism, and a retreat from globalism. Many of these trends were evident during the COVID-19 pandemic but have accelerated in recent years, especially regarding differences in economic policies and climate change. The United States and some European countries have struggled at times to connect with other countries in the grouping. Absent from the summit were the leaders of both China and Russia, just weeks after Beijing and Moscow sent representatives to attend the BRICS Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa. The G-20 summit’s final communiqué failed to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and only offered lukewarm language about the impacts of the conflict, likely a reflection of attempts to maintain a united front. Countries such as Brazil and South Africa have been seen as more willing to listen to the Kremlin’s point of view on aspects of the war in Ukraine. In defense of the language used in the final statement, U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan commented, “From our perspective, it does a very good job of standing up for the principle that states cannot use force to seek territorial acquisition or to violate the territorial integrity and sovereignty or political independence of other states.”
While there was progress on issues like global debt, digital technologies in the Global South, and financing to the world’s most vulnerable nations impacted by climate change, much of the focus was on China’s absence and what that portends for hurdles to cooperation on major global challenges. China’s no-show at the G-20 is indicative of Beijing’s attempt to shift the focus to multilateral forums where it retains more influence. Some have speculated that domestic issues, including issues related to China’s economy (unemployment and declining exports), could explain why Chinese President Xi Jinping decided to stay home. Xi has eschewed major global fora recently while still making time for summits where China clearly wields overwhelming influence, including a May gathering of China and the Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. That meeting took place as leaders of the G-7 were preparing for a summit in Japan.
The G-20 summit also showed that the United States is committed to continuing its partnership with India, not just as a bulwark to a rising China, but as a responsible actor in Asia. President Biden hosted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at an official state dinner at the White House in June, where the leaders discussed a range of issues, explored potential areas of cooperation on artificial intelligence and quantum computing, and assessed the ongoing fallout related to the war in Ukraine. At one point during the summit, President Biden and other world leaders announced the formation of a new rail and shipping corridor intended to rival China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The proposed corridor would connect India and Europe through the Middle East, although the project was short on details, and there are clear geopolitical hurdles, especially given the countries involved and their relationships with one another. In addition to the United States and India, other participants would include the European Union, Israel, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Saudi Arabia. The project is ambitious, to say the least, and there are still important details related to the financing of the project, as well as timelines that have yet to be revealed at length. Moreover, there are some obvious political barriers that could disrupt the venture. Pakistan and Iran have been omitted, while the inclusion of Israel and Saudi Arabia has led to much speculation.
Countries from the Global South featured more prominently as the African Union (AU) was welcomed into the G-20. According to many analysts, developing countries have a far stronger voice than ever before, with issues directly related to them getting much greater attention than during previous summits. When the G-20 initially formed in the 1990s to tackle some of the global financial crises taking place, wealthier nations dominated the discourse, often dispensing advice that could be perceived as condescending and overly paternalistic. Countries in the Global South, including Brazil and Indonesia, are pushing for a greater say in global institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. India’s hosting of the summit placed New Delhi at the center of the world’s attention, yet the spotlight was not all positive—many used the event as an opportunity to critique Modi’s Hindu nationalist government while highlighting the lack of press freedom in the world’s largest democracy. Yet Modi sought to keep the focus positive and on strategic partnerships. While China has attempted to position itself as a champion of the Global South, Xi’s absence afforded Modi and India an opportunity to fill the void, promoting New Delhi’s vision, ideas, and goals at the summit. It also provided Modi a platform to boost his standing at home and a successful data point for his supporters as he seeks re-election to a third term next year.