G20: What all did Riyadh achieve?

December 3, 2020 7:30 AM

A strategy to protect the global economy from Covid-19 was reflected in the updated G20 Action Plan. Beyond this is the plan for a resilient and long-lasting recovery

These indicators of serious strains make the G20’s claims about facing global challenges with solidarity and shared resolve seem less credible.These indicators of serious strains make the G20’s claims about facing global challenges with solidarity and shared resolve seem less credible.

By Rajiv Bhatia

The Group of 20 (G20) summit on November 21-22, hosted by Saudi Arabia, had an unusual backdrop. US President Donald Trump, defeated in the November 3 national elections and delaying the presidential transition to his successor Joe Biden, prioritised improving his golf handicap over substantive participation in summit deliberations. Russian President Vladimir Putin stood out in his refusal to congratulate President-elect Biden. Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian 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 the 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 the G20 achieved in 2020, ‘this challenge-fraught year’ as the Saudi King, the host and the chair, said. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman highlighted the G20’s achievements such as arranging $21 billion for tools and medicines to fight Covid-19 and $14 billion in debt relief to ‘the most vulnerable countries’ under the G20’s flagship programme—the Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI).

This record sounds impressive, but is not enough to overcome scepticism among critics. Yet without the G20’s endeavours, the Covid-19-hit world may have been worse off. Therefore, what the G20 says and does is consequential. The Covid-19 shock and the trio of concerns—health, society, economy—were at the top of agenda, with the group committing to ensure full immunisation 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.

Beyond this 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 privacy, data protection, intellectual property rights and cybersecurity.

Besides, the 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.

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 the 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-19, 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 the G20 to deliver more. While operational level work proceeds, top leaders should improve communication and trust among themselves. A sharper convergence in defining their national interests is essential. Perhaps the new US President may help the G20 do just that.

The author is a former ambassador, and distinguished fellow for Foreign Policy Studies, Gateway House

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