Positive signals from G-20 meet as diplomacy triumphs over rhetoric

Asian age, July 02, 2019

By Pradeep S Mehta

It sets the agenda for the recovery of global growth in a balanced and sustainable manner.

The just-concluded (June 28-29) Osaka G-20 summit witnessed a conciliatory approach on the part of American President Donald Trump on a range of issues threatening global peace and security. Not only that, he agreed to resume talks with China to resolve their bilateral disputes over the treatment of trade and technology, he showed conciliation towards other pressing issues such as 5G technology and Iran. He even met the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on June 30 at the demilitarised zone bordering the two Koreas.

This underlines the fact that public opinion matters, as evident from recent surveys on presidential ratings in the United States, and thus, there was a triumph of diplomacy over rhetoric. After several rounds of discussions and deliberations among the global leadership, the Osaka summit came out with a comprehensive Leaders’ Declaration covering issues ranging from trade and the digital economy to climate change to women’s empowerment. It sets the agenda for the recovery of global growth in a balanced and sustainable manner.

Since the aftermath of the global financial crisis in 2008, this year was most challenging for the leaders of this group of rich and emerging nations to tackle a variety of critical issues facing our lives. Other than the US-China trade war, there is an emerging crisis in the Persian Gulf following the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, followed by periodic skirmishes in the Strait of Hormuz.

In the run-up to Osaka, the tasks for the global leaders were clear-cut — to not only stem such crises from getting escalated but also to come out with a clear action agenda to tackle critical issues in the near future. Kudos to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for his deft handling of not just issues but leaders dealing with them to facilitate a balanced outcome.

The key was in-built structural flexibility in the G-20 process and outcomes — if a country is not comfortable with agreeing with others on a particular issue, it can opt out. For instance, in Osaka, there was a 19+1 agreement on climate change as the United States was not in agreement with others on several of its provisions following its withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord in 2017. Similarly, India opted out from a communiqué on cross-border data flow as it is yet to formulate its policy on data localisation, which will have implications for the growth and development of its nascent e-commerce sector.

Predictably, with global trade growth showing a steady decline over the last couple of years, and at the same time, with an increasing emphasis on digital transformation of trade, this issue dominated the Osaka summit. Added to it was the fact that the multilateral trading system under the auspices of the World Trade Organisation is facing one of its worst crises as its dispute settlement system is becoming ineffective, largely due to the American insistence that it is stacked against its interests.

Welcoming the G-20 Ministerial Statement on Trade and Digital Economy, the Osaka Declaration stressed on the realisation of “a free, fair, non-discriminatory, transparent, predictable and stable trade and investment environment, and to keep markets open”. They reaffirmed their “support for the necessary reform of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to improve its functions… action is necessary regarding the functioning of the dispute settlement system consistent with the rules as negotiated by WTO members”. Also, they recognised “the complementary roles of bilateral and regional free trade agreements that are WTO-consistent.

Furthermore, the leaders decided to “work towards achieving an inclusive, sustainable, safe, trustworthy and innovative society through digitisation and promoting the application of emerging technologies”. “As digitisation is transforming every aspect of our economies and societies, we recognise the critical role played by effective use of data, as an enabler of economic growth, development and social well-being. We aim to promote international policy discussions to harness the full potential of data”.

The Indian delegation to Osaka led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and accompanied by external affairs minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and India’s G-20 sherpa, Suresh Prabhu, among other senior officials, performed exceedingly well to make significant progress on a number of issues in our national interest. Attending his sixth G-20 summit, Prime Minister Narendra Modi showed exemplary global statesmanship to pursue India’s interests in alignment with those of the world as a whole. It was made clear to world leaders that India’s foreign policy will maintain its strategic autonomy with multiple alignments.

Other than the main summit, he took part in one multilateral (the informal summit of leaders of the Brics group — Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), nine bilaterals including those with Japan and the United States, two trilaterals (Japan-America-India and Russia-India-China) and eight pull-asides, including those with the United Nations and the World Bank. Other than trade and issues related to the global economy, counter-terrorism, defence, maritime security, disaster management and healthcare were discussed.

In his meeting with President Donald Trump, they discussed a range of issues related to our bilateral trade and defence cooperation, the future use of 5G technology, and our long-term relationship with Iran. On trade, both sides agreed to conduct ministerial level meetings at the earliest to resolve tariff-related trade irritants. While India clearly explained its position on acquiring the S-400 missile defence system from Russia, the US underlined the importance of India as a major defence partner.

On 5G technology, it is expected that India will be a major manufacturing base for related telecom equipments boosting Make in India, including using technologies from Huawei, which is a private company in China and one of the global leaders in 5G technology. On the question of buying oil from Iran, India asked the United States to work out an alternate system in consultation with its European allies.

Similarly, in his meeting with President Vladimir Putin of Russia and President Xi Jinping of China, they agreed to promote measures related to counter-terrorism, for reformed multilateralism and for addressing climate change. Prime Minister Narendra Modi hoped that India will get the necessary support from Russia and China in hosting a global conference on terrorism, which will be held later this year.

While the G-20 summit in Osaka ended on a positive note, the world will continue to face similar and new challenges. It is up to the leadership of these countries and others to address them in a constructive and balanced manner by upholding the virtues of multilateralism. Otherwise, the second decade of this millennium may see deeper crises as witnessed during the inter-war years a century ago.

Other than the G-20 group as a whole, the primary onus will be on the leaderships of Saudi Arabia and Italy to take this process forward over the next two years. In 2022, on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of our Independence, India will discharge its responsibility of the G-20 presidency. Let us make best use of this period to secure our national interests with prosperity and announce our elevation from an emerging to a major balancing power.

Pradeep Mehta is the Secretary General of CUTS International, a global public policy research and advocacy group.

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