The rise in global geopolitical tensions continues to accelerate the division of the world into competing geopolitical, economic, and ideological blocs. The BRICS summit in late August saw China double down on its ambition to become a de facto leader of the global south by brokering a deal to invite six new members to join the group.1 Meanwhile, the past weekend’s G20 summit showcased the United States’ attempts to draw “swing states” into its geopolitical orbit and highlighted India’s rising importance as a strategic actor on the global stage and a critical partner to the United States. The intensifying competition between the great powers is one of the global macroeconomic anchors that is weakening and, as it does, we expect it will narrow the diplomatic space for constructive compromises and complicate responses to shared global problems.
The G20 summit took place against a backdrop of deteriorating relations—not just between the U.S. and China—but also between China and India, which was the summit’s host country. Coming on the heels of the BRICS summit in South Africa, expectations for the G20 summit were low. Pre-summit deliberations at working group levels also created a gloomy mood among diplomats given the slim prospects for substantive outcomes. Indeed, the fact that the summit produced a joint communique emerged as a surprise and a diplomatic victory for India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi (see Figure 1 for country alignment across the G20, G7, and BRICS+).
More than the communique itself, the absence of China’s President Xi from the G20 meeting—his first no-show since becoming President in 2013—stands out as the key headline from the event. While Beijing did not provide an official explanation for Xi’s absence, speculation as to why he skipped the summit ranges from health and age concerns to domestic political troubles emanating from a weak economy and high youth unemployment. Our view is that the deciding factor behind Xi’s absence is China’s increasingly tense relations with India, including its desire to undermine India’s ambition to become the de facto leader of the global south agenda.
In addition, President Xi likely wanted to signal that his strategic priorities lie with organizations where China can play the leading role, such as BRICS+, and not with a Western-dominated G20 in which Beijing is often cast as an antagonist towards global cooperation. Another likely reason for Xi’s absence could have been his desire to avoid uncomfortable and embarrassing questions about his sputtering economy and ongoing support for a war that most of the G20 members have condemned.
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Aside from the theatrics, the summit’s communique was largely a recycling of previously made commitments under the G20 framework: provide more climate financing, revitalize multilateralism, reform international financial institutions, increase the capacity of Multilateral Development Banks (MDBs) to maximize their development impact, and address debt vulnerabilities in low and middle-income countries, amongst other initiatives.
However, under a veto threat from Russia, the communique removed language that appeared in the previous G20 statement that denounced Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. In the latest G20 statement, the Russia-Ukraine conflict was simply referred to as “the war in Ukraine,” which, on the face of it, appears to draw an equivalence between Russia and Ukraine. This framing helps to explain Kyiv’s disappointed reaction to the statement, which “was nothing to be proud of,” according to the Ukrainian foreign minister.
Ukraine’s key allies within the G20 faced a dilemma: agree to the watered-down language on Ukraine and salvage the summit’s final communique or stand by the previous G20 language and run the risk of perceived failure at a signature event for Prime Minister Modi. Western diplomats likely concluded that the climbdown on Ukraine was preferrable to a failed summit. To be clear, the climbdown—while lacking moral clarity—will have no bearing on the Western military and financial support for Ukraine’s war effort. However, the perception of a failed summit would have validated Russia’s and China’s strategy of undermining yet another Western-backed forum and weakened Modi’s effort to challenge China’s leadership of the global south.
A few key takeaways are noteworthy and warrant further monitoring as Brazil prepares to take over the G20 presidency in 2024.
- India, keenly aware of its weight as a strategic actor, continues to cement its status as a regional and global power broker and has shown it is capable of challenging China’s presumed leadership of the global south;
- The U.S. is slowly, but surely, bringing geopolitical “swing states” into its strategic orbit. Washington’s strategic drive to counter China for influence in the global south was evident in President Biden’s meeting with the leaders of India, Brazil, and South Africa—BRICS countries—on the sidelines of the summit, the announcement of the U.S.-brokered infrastructure deal that connects the Middle East with India, and Biden’s subsequent visit to Vietnam, a frontline country facing China’s regional ambitions;
- Xi’s absence facilitated U.S. engagements with G20 member states, creating much needed diplomatic space from the distractions that Xi’s presence would have created at the summit;
- The G20 remains deeply fractured and will continue to face difficulties in reaching consensus given China’s and Russia’s obstructionist approach during G20 deliberations.
A fractured G20 would suggest that smaller, issue-specific, or like-minded partnerships (i.e., G7, AUKUS, QUAD, etc.) will be more effective in taking decisive actions in the years ahead.
1 The BRICS refers to Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. In August 2023, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, Ethiopia, Argentina, and the UAE were invited to joint the group. They will join the group on January 1, 2024 if they choose to do so.