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Britain and the G20 New Delhi summit

India’s landmark event of its presidency of the G20, the leader-level summit, concluded on 10th September. India utilised its presidency to showcase its credentials as an international power to its domestic audience, and used the 18th gathering of G20’s leaders to showcase those same credentials to an international reception. This conjunction of domestic messaging and international grandstanding was especially evident in the prominence accorded to Narendra Modi, India’s Prime Minister. This was a highly personalised summit, with the role of Modi a key component of India’s messaging. 

That the summit agreed on a leaders’ joint declaration is a success in itself, especially as there were no defecting non-signatories. This can be seen as a major achievement for Indian diplomacy. Agreement on a joint declaration did, however, mask significant differences on the wording covering Russia’s war against Ukraine. In fact,the wording of the declaration was so appeasing that Russia praised the text as ‘balanced’; leaders agreed on the economic impact of war and the aggression against Ukraine is mentioned solely in general terms. The declaration was noticeably weaker than the one adopted at the leaders’ gathering in Bali last year. Jake Sullivan, the National Security Advisor of the United States (US), spun this year’s words on Ukraine as ‘a set of consequential paragraphs’. 

For the United Kingdom (UK), participation at the G20 leader’s summit was an opportunity to further the bilateral relationship with India and, especially, to progress negotiations on the free trade agreement (FTA) between the two. More broadly, Rishi Sunak, the Prime Minister, used the opportunity to deepen Britain’s global canvas of relationships stretching from Australia to France. 

Another British priority was to press for a greater recognition and response to Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine by the G20 members who have not been forthright in supporting Kyiv. In an interview with Sky News, James Cleverly, the Foreign Secretary, stated: ‘we need to remind the world that this is everybody’s problem’ and that ‘the Prime Minister is going to the G20 and talking to nations around the world, not just India, but nations around the world highlighting the fact that this is not just a European issue’.

Absences and enlargement

One notable feature of the summit was the absence of both Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. Whilst Putin has a warrant from the International Criminal Court (ICC), Xi’s decision not to attend seemed more a decision characteristic of recent Chinese diplomacy attempting to diminish the role of institutions led by free and open countries. Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister, and Li Qiang, the People Republic of China’s (PRC) Premier, substituted for Putin and Xi.

The G20 also took the decision to enlarge at the summit with the African Union becoming a permanent member. The enlargement represents a manifestation of recent signals for greater inclusion and cooperation with developing countries, and India’s diplomatic efforts can be credited for this development. However, it is noteworthy that the Integrated Review Refresh already mentioned the UK’s support for ‘permanent African representation in the UNSC, as well as further representation in other multilateral institutions including the G20.’

On the sidelines, a historic new multinational rail and port deal was agreed between the US, India, Saudi Arabia and the EU which plans to better link the Middle East and South Asia. Dubbed the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC), this deal may represent a solution to the energy, electricity, and connectivity problems between these geographic spaces. A memorandum of understanding for IMEC was signed by the EU, India, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, US, Italy, France, and Germany. The UK was not a signatory. 

A good G20 for the UK?

For the UK, the importance of this G20 summit resided primarily in its ability to provide a platform for furthering India-UK relations and the personal relationship between Modi and Sunak. Having a strong presence at multilateral international institutions such as the G20 is also a vital part of British foreign policy pertaining to the maintenance of Britain’s global status through active diplomacy and the exertion of influence.

The language and coverage of the Modi-Sunak encounter conveyed a large degree of personalisation. For Modi, the UK-India relationship is seen as a ‘living bridge’. For Sunak, warm language was linked to tangible deliverables: ‘[it] is vital that the UK has a close relationship with India and an FTA is a way for us to do that’. The meeting was to debate primarily ‘all the different ways in which [the UK and India] can strengthen and deepen th[eir] partnership’ on matters such as defence and security, education, or research.

Under Theresa May, former Prime Minister of the UK, His Majesty’s (HM) Government saw an FTA with India as an easy first step in realising the idea of ‘Global Britain’ and entrenching perceptions of the UK as a world leader. Negotiations have begun in earnest in the past 18 months, and the Sunak-Modi meeting is another step forward.

A UK-Singapore Strategic Partnership was also announced after Sunak met Lee Hsien Loong, the Singaporian Prime Minister, further entrenching the UK’s Indo-Pacific ‘footing’. Sunak also had a meeting with Pravind Kumar Jugnauth, the Prime Minister of Mauritius, to discuss cooperation around the sovereignty dispute over the British Indian Ocean Territory. On the last day of the summit, Sunak met with Li and discussed Chinese interference in Britain’s political system, something given extra weight by public revelations of an arrest six months ago of a parliamentary researcher suspected of spying for the PRC. It was a busy time for British diplomacy.

Looking forward to 2024: Trouble ahead?

Polarised views of the war against Ukraine highlight how the diplomacy of free and open nations attempting to forge a coherent narrative about the nature of Russian actions in the G20 is not yet complete. Whereas all members appear to value the G20’s focus on the international economy and financial regulation, the members are divided on the consequences of threats to the prevailing international order. The broader G20 agenda encompassing terrorism, security, health, energy and water security, climate policy and environment, developing countries, women’s empowerment, and gender equality signals an ambition for a dialogue wide in scope compared to one which narrows in on violations of state sovereignty.  

The incoming Brazilian presidency of the new 21 member G20 may herald a more complicated stewardship of the organisation. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s President, has adopted a neutral position on the war against Ukraine; the leader only recognised and condemned the violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity by Russia in April this year, calling for a mediation made by a group of neutral nations. As one of the professed leaders of developing nations, and member of the BRICS, Lula da Silva believes that it should be developing countries which lead any mediation of the conflict.

Lula da Silva already stated that Putin will not be arrested if he decides to join the 2024 summit, despite the international warrant from the ICC. Time will tell if Lula da Silva decides to review Brazil’s accession to the ICC just to bring Putin to the table once again.

This positioning also reveals an aim of Brazilian foreign policy to shift international emphasis away from the so-called ‘West’ and their attempts to isolate Russia diplomatically. Brazil’s G20 presidency may be at odds with the group’s members who are strong supporters of Ukraine, potentially seeing the divisions evident at this year’s summit deepening. Britain should be aware of this, and ready to respond.

Catarina M. Liberato is a PhD Candidate at the University of Kent. Prof. Richard G. Whitman is a Senior Fellow at UK in a Changing Europe and Professor of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent.

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