Prime Minister Narendra Modi represented India at the 13th G20 summit held in Buenos Aires on November 30- December 1 which marked 10 years since the first summit held in Washington in the wake of the great global financial crisis of 2008. While the group pre-dates that summit it assumed the status of being a pre-eminent multi-lateral organisation with that gathering of the most important global leaders to prevent an international financial and economic catastrophe which would have rivalled the Great Depression which began in 1929 triggered by the collapse of the New York stock exchange in October of that year.
The group consists of 19 advanced and large emerging countries and the European Union. It makes for two-thirds of the world's population, three-fourths of its GDP and more than four-fifths of its trade. A decade after the first summit G20 can take satisfaction that it majorly contributed to pulling the world from the brink of an economic meltdown. However, it has not been as successful in putting the world economy on an equitable, stable and sustainable path amidst the challenges emerging from the unprecedented technological change taking place, at bewildering speed, in the digital age. This was witnessed at the Buenos Aires summit too.
Media attention is seldom focussed as much on the major substantive and far-reaching issues on a summit agenda as on the immediate, catchy and controversial matters in the public consciousness at the time it is held. These may be important in themselves but are not germane to the summit agenda. At the same time, summits do provide significant opportunities to participating leaders to transact important bilateral or regional business on its side lines.
Thus, at this summit there was intense focus on Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman because of the Khashoggi murder in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul on October 2. This was of no value to the summit agenda but it did reveal that in the cynical world of international diplomacy national interest always comes first. Modi had a warm bilateral meeting with the Mohammad bin Salman in which oil supplies, the stability of the world oil market—so important for the Indian economy—and Saudi investments in India were discussed. India has not commented on the Khashoggi matter at all and Modi's meeting was to advance Indian interests. Except for President Trump, leaders whose countries' media has been hostile to the Crown Prince because of the Khashoggi murder also met him. One world renowned broadcasting corporation, often busy giving lectures to developing countries, noted "Most of these leaders know that its in their country's national interest to remain engaged with Saudi Arabia…".
Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping's bilateral meeting produced temporary results. Both leaders decided on a moratorium on further tariff increases for 90 days during which their negotiator will address US concerns regarding intellectual property protection and the America's trade imbalance with China. These problems are deep but both countries have too much to lose in an all-out trade war though China is on a weaker wicket.
The summit communique is 31 paragraphs long and focuses on a large number of issues which are now a standard part of the international agenda. These include the need for global partnership for the continuance of a rules-based international order, sustainable growth, the fight against corruption, successful global counter-terrorism efforts, food security, education and gender equality among others. However, two parts of the communique stand out: the references to transformative technologies and climate change.
The leaders note that transformative technologies will bring great opportunities but difficulties during transitions and "distributional challenges". They endorsed a "menu of policy" options which countries could undertake to handle the situations arising from these technologies and also cooperative efforts. However, what is missing is an acceptance that the disruption brought about by these technologies will now become a constant feature of global life. This has the potential for great global instability; hence, new approaches and mechanisms are required especially relating to transfer of technologies and a conscious effort to reduce all round disparities both within countries and among countries.
Climate change is happening; people are experiencing it in their daily lives. There is an imperative need for the implementation of the Paris Accords to contain green-house gas emissions so that the rise in temperature could be limited and to energise mitigation efforts. However, the US the principal polluter has walked out of the Paris Accord. At the same time the communique "affirmed" its commitment to economic growth and "energy access and security, utilizing all energy sources and technologies, while protecting the environment". Clearly, the US does not consider that its own long-term interests demand that while clean energy may be the key to climate change it cannot achieve results standing alone. Trump's lack of action on climate change is harming the US and the world.
In his interventions Modi emphasised the programmes his government has undertaken for economic modernisation and inclusive growth and proposed a concrete 9-point agenda to comprehensively and efficiently deal with fugitive economic offenders. The latter is important for it should be globally unacceptable that individuals who defraud and cheat billions of dollars in poor countries are able to evade the law in their countries by fleeing to advanced countries and living in luxury. This is important for India and Modi because of the examples of Nirav Modi, Vijay Mallya and others. Naturally, with elections coming this has a domestic political angle too.