Sunak at the G20: What Would Success Look Like?

This morning (Friday 8th September) Rishi Sunak lands in New Delhi ahead of tomorrow’s Group of 20 (G20) Summit. His first trip to India as Prime Minister for the meeting of the world’s 20 largest economies will be an important diplomatic moment in his premiership. The Summit comes at a time of rising tensions between world powers and in which consensus is increasingly hard to forge. But how important is the summit? And what are Sunak’s prospects for success?

An Opportunity for Engagement 

Even with the Russian and the Chinese Presidents absent from the summit this year, the G20 with its diverse range of members remains an important forum for engagement in an increasingly uncertain world. Putin, who rarely travels outside of Russia since the arrest warrant issued against him by the International Criminal Court, was also absent from the recent BRICS Summit and will instead send his Foreign Minister Lavrov to New Delhi. This will be one of the few occasions where Western leaders have sat in the same room as a high-level Russian official since the invasion of Ukraine. This means that the tone of the discussion would be different to ones we may expect at the G7 amongst allies (where Russia was once a member before its annexation of Crimea). At the G20, the West and Russia come face-to-face in front of the ‘middling powers’ on whose support they rely.

The Summit is also a chance for Western leaders to meet with counterparts from developing nations whose relations with the West have come under some strain recently – not least over climate action. After talks of ‘de-dollarisation’ at the BRICS Summit, Western leaders have the chance to try to improve relations with, and reaffirm their commitments to, developing nations, at a time when both Russia and China are scaling up their diplomatic efforts in the developing world.

India has also been carrying out its own diplomatic efforts with developing nations. At the beginning of the year, Modi hosted a virtual summit on ‘The Voice of the Global South’ which was attended by 125 countries. It is expected that the points raised in those earlier discussions will reverberate at the G20 which is this year also attended by the likes of Bangladesh, Egypt and Nigeria. 

The official theme of India’s G20 presidency is ‘One Earth, One Family, One Future’, and discussions are therefore expected to centre around sustainability, progress on the Sustainable Development Goals, and support for vulnerable countries in energy transition and decarbonisation. Here, India is keen to act as a champion for developing nations, having earlier pushed for the African Union to become a permanent member of the G20. Elsewhere, India will look to secure progress on global value chains, infrastructure finance, technological disruptions, financial inclusion, trade, and agriculture.

As a first-time host of the Summit, and with a domestic election around the corner, Modi is eager to use the Summit as an opportunity to demonstrate India’s diplomatic clout and prowess on the world stage. Consensus won’t come easily though. Russia has already threatened to refuse to sign the Summit’s final declaration if it does not reflect their views on Ukraine, a stance that Western powers will fiercely object to. Climate change also looks to be a source of contention – Modi’s attempts to position himself as a champion of developing nations on climate change by opposing what he regards as Western imposition of restrictive climate change policies will no doubt face opposition from Western nations. Indeed France has already been very vocal in its frustrations over the failure to secure agreement on climate at the G20. Of course every year there are challenges to consensus building at the G20, evidenced not least by the last-minute wrangling required to agree on a Leader’s Declaration last year, but with China and Russia both being more forthright headed into this year’s G20 Summit, the prospects of success remain precarious.

Sunak’s To Do List

As with all summits, some of the most important takeaways will emerge outside of formal negotiations. As Rishi Sunak sets foot in New Delhi, he will be representing Britain as its first Prime Minister of Indian heritage, a practising Hindu with deep family ties to the country. Sunak’s appointment as UK Prime Minister was treated with pride by Indians, and the fact that Modi chose a London newspaper (The Times) to communicate the aims of his own G20 Presidency with the Western world shows the UK’s unique position as an ally to India with shared cultural and historical links. An expectedly warm reception by his hosts will help the PM to deepen the bilateral relationship with India and give greater credibility to the UK’s ‘Indo-Pacific tilt’. 

On a bilateral level, top of the agenda will be the long-awaited UK-India Free Trade Agreement. The trade deal, once promised to be ‘done by Diwali’ (October 2022), is expected to lower tariffs on British goods and services to a huge consumer market in exchange for easier access for Indian imports (such as textiles) to UK markets and more visas for Indian students and workers. With concerns about migration levels high on the domestic political agenda, the latter remains a major sticking point. While the trade deal is not ready to be signed at the summit, a possible second visit to India from Sunak later this year suggests that the agreement is nonetheless close to completion, and the in-person conversations between Sunak and Modi may well expedite the process.

A bilateral with China’s Premier Li Qiang, who is deputising for President Xi, may also be on Sunak’s agenda. A possible meeting between the British Prime Minister and a senior Chinese official would help cement renewed British efforts to re-engage with China, following James Cleverly’s visit to Beijing last month. There is even talk of British officials extending an invitation to China for the UK’s planned international Summit on Artificial Intelligence in November this year, as the UK looks to create new avenues for cooperation with China, while not compromising UK security.

Elsewhere, Sunak will look to use the Summit to build momentum for the aforementioned AI Safety Summit in November and will use bilaterals with EU nations to flesh out agreements for the UK to rejoin Horizon Europe. It’s a large to-do list and the success of Sunak’s trip to India will be assessed as much on these bilaterals as by the content of the G20 communique itself.

Prospects for Success

For all the hopes of cooperation which drive every international summit, a successful outcome will invariably be different for each leader. For Sunak, a successful summit will be one where he can concretely say he’s brought Britain closer to a trade deal with India, as well as extending cooperation on defence. A successful meeting with China’s Premier Li Qiang and building ground for the November AI Summit will also be key metrics against which he will be assessed. More broadly, and in the face of rising Russian influence among developing and ‘middle’ powers, Western leaders like Sunak must work with their allies to broaden the coalition of support for Ukraine. With the return of in-person diplomacy, more robust conversations are to be had on climate action and how the developed world should support developing nations in their energy transition and development. A new world may be emerging in which India plays a more central role. With that prospect, Britain must work out what role it can play.

Ali Khosravi

Ali Khosravi is a Research Intern at the British Foreign Policy Group.