By Dr Manpreet Sethi *
In December this year, India will assume presidency of the economic grouping, G20, which comprises major developed and developing economies. For one year thereafter, New Delhi will be in the driver’s seat. It is not expected to be an easy ride given the rather difficult economic bends and steep geopolitical humps that will have to be negotiated. In fact, the group, which started with a primary focus on financial and economic issues, has never experienced the kind of stressed inter-state relations that characterise international relations today. The G20 grew and blossomed in a more benign world. It focused primarily on coordinating the financial policies and trade issues of economies that constituted 85-90 per cent of global GDP and 75 per cent of global trade. The political nature of these relationships was never a matter of overarching concern for the group.
The contemporary economic and political situation, however, is different. According to World Bank predictions, the world is likely to see the sharpest global contraction in the coming years. Having faced global supply chain disruptions, first from the pandemic and then from the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, the economic order is likely to buck the old form of globalisation. So, the familiarity of economic behaviour seen in the past few decades will be missing in the future. New, smaller economic arrangements are being explored to minimise the vulnerabilities of elaborate global supply chains, since more disruptions from pandemics and geopolitical tensions are still expected.
On the political front, inter-state relations between major powers have never been this polarised since the Cold War years. As a result of the tensions between Russia and the US/NATO over Ukraine, and between the US and China over Taiwan and other issues, the geopolitical situation is rife with challenges that will impinge on the G20’s future.
Three other developments, too, will cast a shadow on the group. The first relates to a perceptible decline of faith in the capacity of multilateral institutions; the second comes from the rise of an assertive and aggressive China that is not shying away from flexing its military muscle. The third can be felt from the increased frequency and intensity of climate-induced events that are impacting both developed and developing countries.
As a consequence of these developments, all national economies are facing a situation of multiple whammies. While geopolitical challenges are pushing states towards building hard military power against perceived national security threats, health emergencies and climate concerns are compelling national spending on health, resilient infrastructure, and disaster mitigation. Torn between the two priorities, governments will yearn for fast economic growth, but the constraint will be to achieve it in sustainably.
What, in these circumstances, can India’s presidency bring to the table? Can India offer the G20 a new focus or direction? Issues of cybersecurity, digitisation, data hygiene, accelerating economic growth, etc. will obviously be on the agenda. But, given the specific nature of contemporary challenges, can India use its G20 leadership to bring some of its own ‘middle path’ philosophy and values into the ‘system’? As multiple working groups are established and around 200 meetings are held, can India nudge some of them to focus on issues that it believes demand a solution through cooperative action?
Two of these can be identified as examples. The first pertains to energy security within the larger ambit of climate concerns. Electricity as an essential driver of modern economies is an established fact. The world needs humongous quantities of electricity to power economic growth, especially in developing countries. The manner in which this electricity is produced has a huge impact on the climate. In fact, nearly 27 per cent of greenhouse gases being emitted into the atmosphere today come from electricity production, which is hugely skewed in favour of fossil fuels. The G20 economies are responsible for adding about 80 per cent of global carbon emissions. If these countries have to be weaned-off fossil fuels and redirected towards low carbon options, their energy transition will have to be supported by low-cost financing and technology options. Rapid increase in the use of renewable and nuclear energy, which are amongst the lowest greenhouse gas emitters, will be required to ensure that developing nations are able to halt climate change.
India has set a good example by taking several measures to meet its climate commitments: these aim to reach non-fossil energy capacity of 500 GW and meeting 50 per cent of its electricity requirements from renewable energy by 2030. A continuing expansion of its indigenous nuclear power programme and a rapid move towards the use of solar and wind energy for electricity generation are steps in this direction. India also initiated the establishment of the International Solar Alliance (ISA) to encourage the use of solar electricity. India’s ability to forge partnerships and friendships across today’s polarised world can help it bring energy transition issues into sharper focus. New Delhi’s traditional approach of conservation and responsible consumption can be demonstrated to foreign visitors during its G20 presidency as insight on sustainable lifestyles. The prime minister, too, has encouraged all citizens down this path as part of his call for LIFE or “lifestyle for environment.”
As G20 president, New Delhi can also encourage countries to prioritise peace over security. India is one of the few countries that faces a rather challenging geopolitical environment from two nuclear-armed neighbours—with whom it has unresolved territorial issues, and who use proxies to keep India unsettled. It routinely faces multiple crises. While this has necessitated the build-up of hard power, India has never projected force as a weapon of first resort. It has also not lost sight of the fact that only peace can bring true security. Restraint and responsibility are evident in India’s military behaviour, including on the development of nuclear weapons capability and its no first use policy. This is quite in contrast to its neighbours.
For national economic growth and development to take centre stage, the international system will have to rethink military spending. If major powers continue without talking to each other, mistrust will only grow. It will lead to worst case assumptions of each other’s capabilities and intent, fuelling self-fulfilling prophecies and taking attention away from economic development. Given that these powers are also expanding their nuclear weapons arsenals and capabilities, and many of them are opting for risk-prone nuclear strategies, inadvertent escalation leading to a nuclear exchange is not as unthinkable as it used to be.
As India assumes the G20 presidency, it has an opportunity to set the agenda, organise meetings between ministers, government officials, and civil society members, as well as the Leaders’ Summit in November 2023. India’s traditional wisdom of prioritising international peace to ensure national security is necessary to enable global financial stability, address climate change mitigation and ensure sustainable development. That is what a Vishwaguru should do.
*Dr. Manpreet Sethi is Distinguished Fellow at the Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS), New Delhi.