The 15th G20 summit was held in virtual mode on November 21-22 under Saudi Arabia’s presidency. Earlier, in March, an extraordinary summit was convened for the group to focus on the global challenge of COVID-19. The recent summit too was held under the deep shadow of the pandemic. The 19 countries along with the European Union which comprise the G20 can play a major role in steering an effective international response to the virus because they account for 85% of the world’s GDP and 75% of international trade. Have they shown sufficient will and urgency to co-ordinate responses and to tackle what is clearly the greatest and most comprehensive problem that has confronted the world at least since the Second World War?
In the March summit the G20 leaders “strongly committed” themselves to “presenting a united front” against “this common threat”. Flowing from this commitment came the “pledge” to act “collectively and individually” to “protect lives, safeguard people’s jobs and incomes, restore confidence, preserve financial stability, revive growth and recover stronger, minimize disruptions to trade and global supply chains, provide help to all countries in need of assistance and coordinate on public health and financial measures”.
This ambitious aim required full international cooperation to end the pandemic and mitigate its adverse impact. It also required that the US as the world’s most powerful country and with the greatest resources to undertake a real leadership role and that China suspended its aggressive thrust to expand its influence.
Neither country’s leader– an America First Donald Trump and a Move Ahead at Any Cost Xi Jinping–was willing to adopt policies suited for the international community to truly collectively address the multifaceted crisis. Hence, while the G20 health, finance and other ministers and officials met to give concrete shape to the vision outlined in the March statement the response to the pandemic did not achieve the cooperative traction required; an exception has been in providing debt relief to financially vulnerable developing countries. This was necessary to prevent a degree of instability in the global financial system. Hence, the interests of the developed and developing worlds coincided in this matter.
World Health Organisation (WHO) is the international organisation to coordinate global health matters. The March summit statement profiled WHO’s role. It noted “We fully support and commit to strengthen the WHO’s mandate in coordinating the international fight against the pandemic, including the protection of front-line health workers, delivery of medical supplies, especially the diagnostic tools, treatments, medicines and vaccines”. Notwithstanding this faith in the WHO the organisation came in the US-China cross-fire. President Donald Trump accused it of bending backwards to ensure that Chinese tardiness in warning the world of the dangers of the virus was not faithfully revealed. It is true that the WHO and China have much to answer for on how they handled the emergence and the initial spread of the disease but these delays and obfuscation should not have led to Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the organisation. That was an undoubted blow to efforts at global coordination to handle the health issues of the pandemic.
If the US was unwise in turning its back on the WHO, China’s aggressive global posture, after it had brought the disease largely under control in its territory at relatively little cost, was irresponsible. Its conduct in the South China Sea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and against Australia caused turbulence at a time when the world needed calm cooperation to address both the health and the economic crises brought about by COVID-19. Chinese moves along the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh beginning from May can be seen, from one perspective, as part of its post COVID-19 sharp stance. If China aimed at impressing the world with this exhibition of its power against India it obviously failed because of Indian resolve.
In the absence of a well-coordinated global response to develop diagnostics, preventives and therapeutics major pharmaceutical companies have with the support of their governments individually went ahead in these fields. Consequently, a number of vaccines are now reaching the final stage of development in an uncoordinated manner. The G20 annual summit statement makes the commitment that it will “spare no effort to protect lives, provide support with a special focus on the most vulnerable” but it remains to be seen how it will successfully implement this fine sentiment. In the cruel world of international relations countries have to ultimately look after themselves in all spheres; in this case in the areas of health and the economy.
The G20 came into being with global economic crisis of 2008. At that time the group decided to shun protectionist tendencies and provide financial stimuli to bring the international economy back on the rails. The advanced countries also committed to giving a greater role in global economic governance structures to the emerging economies. Once the global economy recovered the advanced countries ignored their pledges. Now again commitments for more equitable governance structures are being made. The annual summit statement mentions “We remain committed to revisit the adequacy of quotas and will continue the process of IMF governance reform…”. It is unlikely that the advanced countries will easily give up their control of these institutions. It is also equally unlikely that the international trading system will see greater equity.
The lesson of history is that all countries have to safeguard their interests by themselves in this harsh and lonely world. COVID-19 is only reinforcing that lesson.