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3 December 2020, Financial Express

G20: What all did Riyadh achieve?

Saudi Arabia hosted the G20 Summit on 21-22 November, this year. A strategy to protect the global economy, which is the heart of the G20’s existence, was reflected in the updated G20 Action Plan, a clear by-product of the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic. Beyond the immediate, is the plan for a resilient and long-lasting recovery.

Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Programme

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The Group of 20 (G20) summit on 21-22 November, hosted by Saudi Arabia, had an unusual backdrop.

U.S. President Donald Trump, defeated in the Nov 3 national election and delaying the presidential transition to his successor Joe Biden, prioritized improving his golf handicap over substantive participation in summit deliberations. Russian President Putin stood out in his refusal to congratulate President-elect Biden. Chinese President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi had not talked in months, even as the two countries’ troops continue a tense confrontation in eastern Ladakh.

These indicators of serious strains make the G20’s claims about facing global challenges with solidarity and shared resolve, seem less credible. Yet, the world has no choice but to pay attention to what G20 does because it remains the most prominent forum for international cooperation.

Cutting through the rhetoric and wordy documents is necessary to correctly assess what G20 achieved during 2020, ‘this challenge-fraught year’ as the Saudi King, the host and the chair said. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman summed up the G20 commitments thus:

  • $21 billion for tools and medicines to fight Covid-19,
  • $11 trillion to support businesses and save jobs globally,
  • $14 billion in debt relief to “the most vulnerable countries” under the G20’s flagship programme – the Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI),
  • $300 billion raised by financial institutions to assist emerging and low-income countries.

This composite record sounds impressive, but is not enough to overcome skepticism among critics and observers. Yet without the endeavours of the G20, the Covid-hit world may have been worse off. Therefore, what the G20 says and does is consequential. The virtual summit did have some achievements. The Covid shock and the trio of concerns – health, society, economy – was at the top of agenda, with the group committing to mobilize resources for R&D, manufacturing and distribution of diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines, to ensure full immunization and “affordable and equitable access for all.” A strategy to protect the global economy – the heart of the G20’s existence – was reflected in the updated G20 Action Plan. It was much needed: as of November 2020, 46 countries requested to benefit from DSSI an estimated $5.7 billion in debt service deferral.

Beyond the immediate, is the plan for a resilient and long-lasting recovery. These ranged from G20 actions to support world trade, treating infrastructure as a driver of growth to financial sector issues and international taxation. Support for WTO reform has been articulated strongly, together with a recognition to increase “the sustainability and resilience” of national, regional and global supply chains. The Financial Stability Board has been asked to continue “monitoring financial sector vulnerabilities” and enhance global cross-border payment arrangements. The digital economy received special attention, particularly issues concerning privacy, data protection, intellectual property rights and cyber security.

Besides, G20 remains committed to a whole spectrum of steps covered by its anti-money laundering and anti-terrorist financing policy as well as to strengthening the Financial Action Task Force’s global network of regional bodies. The resolve to carry forward the global fight against corruption, including through “a multi-stakeholder approach” was stressed. This is an area with the clear imprint of Indian negotiators

The arrival of potentially successful Covid vaccines gave the G20 both hope and caution.  Even as the leaders endorsed the postponement of major public events as a way to mitigate the pandemic’s impact, they commended Japan’s determination to host the Olympics and UAE’s resolve to host the World Expo in 2021.

And what of India? It swapped its G20 presidency of 2022 with Indonesia in 2023, and will certainly be better prepared in physical, administrative and intellectual infrastructure. The new sequence of G20 chairs will be Italy (2021), Indonesia (2022), India (2023) and Brazil (2024). The latter three is a trio of developing countries, which must start coordination early to poise itself for an ambitious but implementable agenda, given the ever-rising expectations of the G20.

Recently a former foreign secretary mentioned to this author that the world, beset with pressing challenges, needed “a missionary with a mission” but, instead it had G20 as “a talk shop.” John Kirton, professor at University of Toronto, assessed the Riyadh summit as “a small short-term success” for its resolve and decisions relating to the fight against Covid, but faulted it for its failure to devise a “new coordinated stimulus” for revving up the global economy.

Prevailing fissures among the leading nations make it unrealistic to expect G20 to deliver more. While operational level work proceeds, the top leaders should improve communication and trust among themselves. A sharper convergence in defining their national interests is essential. Perhaps the new president of the U.S. may help G20 do just that.

Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Gateway House and a former ambassador. He comments regularly on issues relating to G20 among other multilateral groupings.

This article was originally published by Financial Express.