ANALYSIS | Narendra Modi got what he wanted from the G20. Did anyone else? | CBC News

One clear winner emerged from the G20 summit in New Delhi — the man whose face was plastered on every wall and every barrier fence in the city.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s staring countenance was everywhere in this city drained of its people and commerce for the summit, paired with slogans such as “Promoting a Universal Sense of Oneness” or the tongue-twisting “Pro-Planet People for Pro-Planet Progress.”

About a million people were essentially locked in their homes to make the city look more orderly for the international visitors. Others saw their homes bulldozed as part of an official beautification strategy. Businesses were ordered to close.

Far from being hurt by these measures, Modi almost certainly has increased his dominance over Indian politics in the run-up to next year’s election. Polls show that about two-thirds of Indians believe their country’s influence in the world is growing.

The summit caps a month that saw Indian scientists successfully place a lander on the dark side of the moon and launch another mission to study the sun.

For a country that has long punched below its demographic weight, those achievements mean a lot.

Laborers wash their clothes in sewage water under a bridge, newly painted and decorated in preparation for the G20 summit, in New Delhi, India, Thursday, Aug. 24, 2023. As India gears up to host the annual gathering of the Group of 20 industrialized and developing nations, the capital city is undergoing an elaborate makeover. But for many street vendors and shantytowns dotting the city, the beautification of New Delhi has meant displacement and loss of livelihoods.
Laborers wash their clothes in sewage water under a bridge, newly painted and decorated in preparation for the G20 summit, in New Delhi, India on Aug. 24, 2023. (Manish Swarup/Associated Press)

Modi appears to have achieved all the goals he set for himself in a meticulously choreographed summit. The developing world, and Africa in particular, may have benefited as well — or at least the people who run its governments did.

If Modi was a net winner, the summit was less of a success for the West, the health of the planet and the Chinese Communist Party.

While representatives of the world’s largest economies gathered in New Delhi, China hosted the leaders of Venezuela and Zambia, two near-bankrupt countries heavily indebted to Beijing.

Those visits perhaps were intended to send a signal that leaders who want to see Xi will have to come visit him in person. They certainly were intended to squeeze Venezuela and Zambia to hand over more of their rare earth minerals, coltan and crude oil.

FILE PHOTO: President of Brazil Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, President of China Xi Jinping, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi and Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov pose for a BRICS family photo during the 2023 BRICS Summit at the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg, South Africa, on August 23, 2023.  GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo
Chinese autocrat Xi Jinping, surrounded by leaders from Brazil, South Africa, India and Russia, takes part in a recent BRICS family photo. (Gianluigi Guercia via REUTERS)

Something like 90 countries are expected to send delegates to Xi’s Belt-and-Road summit later this year. But Xi Jinping’s decision to skip the G20 backfired spectacularly when Modi used his vast stage to crown himself spokesperson for the global South.

And as the summit closed, the only European nation to join the Belt and Road Initiative — Italy — signalled it was pulling out.

The brushoff that backfired

“Xi Jinping, of course, thought it would be a snub. You know, rain on Mr. Modi’s great parade,” said John Kirton, president of the University of Toronto’s G20 research group. “But President Xi, as the leader of a dictatorship, suffers the predictable constraint that he misjudges things.

“So Mr. Modi will come out of the summit as the leader of the global South, which will do a lot for the developing countries … And it’ll all be done without Mr. Xi here. So he can’t claim any credit for it at all.”

It was not Xi but Modi who opened the door for the 55-nation African Union to join the G20. Despite the vast sums of money China has dispensed in Africa, it’s Modi who will take the credit for progress on debt relief and reform of international lending institutions to help poor developing countries.

Modi even negotiated assistance for Zambia. Its president Hakainde Hichilema acknowledged Modi’s efforts while visiting Beijing, where the Chinese were offering relief only in exchange for privileged access to Zambia’s mineral wealth.

Kirton said Xi won’t have many opportunities to undo the damage done by his miscalculation.

“This, in a sense, was his last chance. Indonesia, a democracy, hosted last year,” he said. “Then this year, of course, India, the biggest democracy in the developing world. Next year, Brazil, another democracy. Then South Africa, the year after that. And then after that, it certainly seems it’s back to the USA.”

The next two years will see the G20 hosted by members of the BRICS group that China helped to create as a counterweight to the G7. But the BRICS remains an uneasy assortment of democracies and dictatorships that lacks the cohesion, shared vision or shared interests of the G7.

The G7 countries, all strong supporters of Ukraine, were not able to impose their views of the war on the summit.

They were vetoed by Russia and stymied by leaders more or less sympathetic to Russia, such as Brazil’s Lula da Silva, who argued that the G20 — created as an economic forum — was not the place to discuss matters of war and peace.

In this photo provided by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (second left) and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (second right) meet at the Grand Prince Hotel during the G7 Summit in Hiroshima, Japan on May 20, 2023.
In this photo provided by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (second left) and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (second right) meet at the Grand Prince Hotel during the G7 Summit in Hiroshima, Japan on May 20, 2023. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)

Consequently, language that did appear in the G20 joint declaration last year in Bali, such as “Russian aggression” and “condemn,” was absent from this year’s more anodyne statement.

“If a communique is what we want, if that’s the goal of these summits, then we’ve got what everybody came here to to get,” said Tristan Naylor, director of the G20 research unit at Cambridge University.

“But if what we want is something substantive, something that advances on the big issues that really mattered, I don’t think that we achieved that here. Just thinking of the paragraph on the war in Ukraine, it is even more watered-down than the watered-down paragraph we had last year at the Bali summit. So in many ways, I think we’ve taken a step backwards.”

‘Nothing to be proud of’

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, denied by Modi the opportunity to participate in the G20, certainly felt the summit came up short.

Ukrainian government spokesman Oleg Nikolenko tweeted out what he called a “corrected” version of the communique that replaced its wishy-washy language with a version closer to reality as perceived by Ukrainians. He declared the summit “nothing to be proud of.”

“If it were just up to me,” said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, “the leaders’ declaration would have been much stronger on Ukraine. If it was just up to some other countries around the table, it would have been much weaker.”

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Relations between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi appeared strained at this year’s G20 summit. Modi pushed Trudeau to rein in Sikh separatists in Canada, while Trudeau was dissatisfied with the wording of a joint declaration he called too weak on climate change and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

That said, wars are not won by communiques but on battlefields and in the factories that produce the arms to fight them. And so, the G20’s weakness on Ukraine might not mean that much to the outcome of the war.

NATO members and allies such as Japan that have chosen to back Ukraine will continue to do so. Governments such as Brazil’s that have tried to push peace plans on Ukraine that call for surrender — or have suggested that Russia’s atrocities in Ukraine are a hoax — were never going to help anyway.

A wasted opportunity

What might have a more serious effect on the future is the G20’s weak outcome on climate change. Modi and some other leaders from the developing nation bloc were more focused on extracting financial concessions from wealthier nations as a condition for climate action than they were on the action itself. The result was a document devoid of binding commitments.

“The language on climate change is certainly the portion of the communique that actually disappoints me most,” Naylor told CBC News. “We are a couple of months away from the next big COP climate change summit, and there is nothing new here of substance. No new commitments, nothing new on the elimination of fossil fuels. This does not bode well for the conference hosted by the UAE in a couple of months’ time.”

There does seem to have been some progress on getting rich countries to agree to reform international lending institutions and inject some new money that can be leveraged to boost the funds available to developing countries.

But when asked whether the countries had come to any sort of grand bargain over issues of money and climate change, one senior Canadian official privy to the discussions said that there had been no real breakthrough and a lot of difficult bargaining remained.

One thing that seemed clear in New Delhi was that future discussions at the G20 are likely to revolve more and more around one question:

The house is on fire — who will pay for the fire extinguisher?

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