Ten Key Takeaways from the G20 Summit

Heading into the 2023 G20 Summit the prospects for success were low, with sharp divisions between the world’s 20 largest economies on a range of issues, not least Ukraine, leading to concerns that for the first time ever leaders would fail to agree on a final communique. Some deft diplomacy from India and a decent amount of compromise by Western powers made a final agreement possible, but at what cost? And what will the legacy of the Summit be? Here are the ten most important takeaways from the Summit.

1. Western powers compromise on Ukraine to secure G20 consensus

While Prime Minister Sunak argued that the G20 had agreed ‘very tough language’ on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Russia came out of negotiations by far the most jubilant. Gone were the statements that most members ‘strongly condemned the war in Ukraine’ and all mention of Russian aggression, instead replaced with vague statements about how ‘all states’ need to respect territorial integrity and sovereignty. With Russia and China both going into negotiations much more forthright than they had been in Bali last year, compromise was certainly needed to reach consensus at the Summit. Nonetheless, with Lavrov celebrating his success at ‘prevent(ing) the West’s attempts to Ukranise the summit’, while Ukraine condemned the joint statement as ‘nothing to be proud of’, it is clear that Ukraine’s allies ceded the most ground in negotiations.

2. The balance of power in the G20 is shifting

The wording around Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was one of many signs that the balance of power in the G20 continues to shift away from Western powers, even as Russia and China failed to send their leaders to the Summit. It is striking that it was Brazil, India and South Africa who came up with the eventual wording on Ukraine for the communique, as developing and emerging economies look to provide alternative leadership in an increasingly polarised world. This was further evidenced by the decision to admit the African Union as a permanent member of the G20, a move that reflects the growing recognition of the importance of the continent which for so long has been neglected from the world stage.

3. A diplomatic success for India 

This was the first time India had hosted the G20 Summit and it was determined to put on a show, as India seeks to cement itself as a leading diplomatic power. The most important step for doing that was securing a consensus on a final communique, which many thought impossible, and which was made viable in no small part by India’s careful diplomacy. India’s attempts to position itself as a champion and advocate for the developing world will also have been strengthened by its success in securing agreement for the African Union to become a permanent member of the G20. 

4. Climate change remains a top  priority but there’s more to be done

The theme for this year’s Summit was ‘One Earth, One Family, One Future’ and significant focus was placed on tackling climate change. Members pledged to ‘encourage efforts to triple renewable energy capacity’ and announced a Green Development Pact, recognising that future prosperity is contingent on the environmental sustainability of current policy choices. Outside of the main communique, the UK pledged US$2 billion to the Green Climate Fund, while the US, Brazil and India announced a global biofuel alliance. 

However, France branded the Summit’s progress on climate change as ‘insufficient’, with many left disappointed that ambitions to ‘phase down’ the use of coal were not elevated to a ‘phasing out’ of coal, and by the lack of reference to oil or gas in the final communique. Particular concerns remain over the clear dividing line that exists between Western nations (particularly France) who expect emerging economies to bear responsibility for net-zero and coal phase-outs, and developing nations (increasingly being led by India) fed up of what they perceive as lecturing from Western nations. Heading into COP28 in a few months time, the fine balance of who should bear the responsibility (and costs) of climate action look set to continue to dominate multilateral climate negotiations.

5. The quest for a UK-India Free Trade Agreement continues

With Sunak’s meeting with Modi postponed by a day and a security lockdown across the city largely preventing engagement with local people, Sunak’s vision that he would be greeted like ‘India’s Son-in-Law’ was damaged on arrival in India. Initial hopes of securing a free trade agreement with India at the summit had been quelled long before the Summit began, not least due to ongoing tensions around India’s desire for more Indian student visas as part of the deal, and it seems there is still a long way to go. After the UK-India bilateral meeting Sunak emphasised that there is still ‘hard work’ to be done to reach an agreement, though officials hope a deal can now be struck by the end of the year. India’s offer to Sunak of an ‘early’ trip back to India will keep that ambition alive, at least for now.

6. UK-China reset gets off to a rocky start

Hopes that the Summit would provide an opportunity to further rebuild UK-China relations following Foreign Secretary James Cleverly’s visit to China last week were also quickly quashed. It was originally hoped that Sunak would get to meet President Xi, who ultimately opted not to attend the Summit, and Sunak’s 20 minute meeting with Xi’s deputy – Premier Li Qiang – was overshadowed by the news of the arrest of a House of Commons researcher on suspicion of spying for China. The timing could not have been more unfortunate for Sunak, who had hoped to use the bilateral to showcase the value of their policy of  ‘engaging where it makes sense’, and instead Sunak was forced to raise ‘very strong concerns’ about potential Chinese interference in the UK democracy, an allegation China strongly refutes. 

7. UK missing from major transport deal

One of the biggest announcements of the Summit was a new rail and ports deal which was revealed on the sidelines of the Summit. The deal signed by the United States, the EU, India and Saudi Arabia will link Middle Eastern countries by railway and connect them to India by port, to improve the flow of energy and trade from the Gulf to Europe. Pitched as an effort to help low and middle income countries in the region, it is designed as a counter to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, pitching the signatories as alternative partners for developing nations. The UK’s absence from the agreement was notable, not least given its involvement in the G7’s attempts to counter the BRI, and while initiatives from our allies are very welcome, questions remain over why the UK was not, or chose not to be, included.

8. UK strengthens ties with Singapore

While the UK’s diplomatic efforts with a number of key partners may have fallen short of ambitions, the UK did manage to secure a new Strategic Partnership with Singapore, enhancing the UK’s trading and economic relationship with the nation. This includes a commitment to seek to finalise a new bilateral investment treaty, as well as to strengthen cooperation on science, technology and security. The move provides further strength to the UK’s Indo-Pacific tilt, as the UK looks to enhance its partnerships in this increasingly important region.

9. Deep seated divides remain

While consensus may have been agreed on a final communique, it is clear that deep seated divides remain between the nations. The most striking visualisation of this is the absence of a leaders photo for a second year running, allegedly because leaders refused to be photographed. Leaders are rarely shy of a photo opportunity (and indeed many took photos with other individual G20 leaders) suggesting many were cautious of being photographed with their rivals, and particularly with Russia. This speaks to the deep seated geopolitical divides that remain between the G20 nations and which hampered attempts at more transformative commitments at the G20.

10. Brazil 2024, another ‘neutral’ summit?

Looking ahead to the 2024 G20 Summit, which will be held by Brazil, and President Lula looks set to try and position the G20 as a neutral group operating outside of global geopolitics, in much the same way as India has. On Russia, for example, President Lula said in a now backtracked statement, that President Putin would be welcome to attend next year’s summit without concern of arrest (Putin currently faces an arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court for war crimes). Lula has consistently sought to adopt a ‘neutral’ stance in Ukraine, and has previously criticised the United States for encouraging the war. Elsewhere, as Lula accepted next year’s G20 Presidency he took the opportunity to focus on poverty alleviation and sustainable development, again closely mirroring many of India’s priorities, as the G20 faces increasing pressure to listen to a diversity of voices. Times are changing and so too is the G20.


Evie Aspinall

Evie is the Director of the British Foreign Policy Group