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AU ‘hails G20 full membership’

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Picture: Evan Vucci/Pool via REUTERS/September 9, 2023 Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, right, shares a light moment with AU Chairperson Azali Assoumani, who is the president of the Union of the Comoros at the G20 Summit in New Delhi, yesterday.

In a landmark development, the African Union (AU) was made a full member of the Group of 20 (G20) under India’s presidency, yesterday. It is a win for India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s efforts to portray his country as a voice for the Global South.

The move to include the AU in the G20 was proposed by Modi in June and supported by China. At the inaugural session of the two-day G20 summit held in the Indian capital of New Delhi, the members agreed to grant permanent membership to the AU to make the group more representative. Until recently, the G20 comprised 19 countries and the EU, with South Africa being its only member state from the Continent. “With everyone’s approval, I request the African Union head to take his seat as a permanent G20 member,” Modi said, claiming it turned the grouping into a “people’s G20”.

President Azali Assoumani of the Union of the Comoros, who is the current AU chairperson, then assumed his seat representing the 55-member continental body for the session. The AU at full strength has 55 members but six junta-ruled nations are currently suspended. Collectively, it has a GDP of $3 trillion (about R57 trillion) with some 1.4 billion people. “As a continent, we look forward to further advancing our aspirations on the global stage using the G20 platform,” Nigeria’s President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, who is at the summit, posted on X, formerly Twitter.

The AU Commission chairperson Moussa Faki hailed the decision to grant the continental body permanent membership in the G20. “I welcome the AU’s entry into the G20 as (a) full member. The membership, for which we have long been advocating, will provide a propitious framework for amplifying advocacy in favour of the Continent and its effective contribution to meeting global challenges,” Faki wrote on X.

War in Ukraine

Meanwhile, the G20 leaders papered over deep divisions on the war in Ukraine and tackling climate change, avoiding direct criticism of Moscow and any concrete pledge to phase out polluting fossil fuels. Leaders of the grouping, which brings together Russia as well as some of Ukraine’s most ardent backers, have struggled to agree on much, in particular about the 18-month-old invasion. But facing a major diplomatic embarrassment, hosts India had pressed members to agree a common statement.

With Russian President Vladimir Putin skipping the summit, the G20 denounced the use of force for territorial gain but refrained from direct criticism of Russia by name. European nations and the US had pressed for the G20 not to water down its earlier condemnation of a war that has caused food and fuel price spikes worldwide. With long-time Russian ally India in the G20 chair, Ukraine’s allies appeared to have failed in that bid.

Nonetheless, a top White House official said they were happy with the outcome. “From our perspective, it does a very good job,” US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters. He said the G20 statement stood up “for the principle that states cannot use force to seek territorial acquisition or to violate the territorial integrity and sovereignty or political independence of other states”. Sullivan also pointed to the G20’s agreement that “the use of nuclear weapons is inadmissible”.

Kyiv criticised the G20 leaders’ statement which denounced the use of force for territorial gain. “Ukraine is grateful to the partners who tried to include strong wording in the text. At the same time, in terms of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, the Group of 20 has nothing to be proud of,” said Oleg Nikolenko, a spokesperson at the Ukrainian foreign affairs ministry, according to AFP.

Climate change

On climate, too, the G20 found minimal common ground. With major fossil fuel producers including Saudi Arabia, Russia and Australia – and coal-dependent nations such as India and South Africa – around the table, there was no overarching commitment to phase out the polluting fuels. Such a measure was deemed “indispensable” by the UN just a day earlier to achieve a net-zero goal.

Instead, the G20 countries pledged to triple renewable energy sources by 2030 while committing only to a “phasedown” of coal “in line with national circumstances”. The G20 countries account for 85 percent of global GDP and a similar amount of global climate-warming emissions, making action in the forum crucial to real progress. The backdrop to the talks could hardly be starker: the EU’s climate monitor has said this year is likely to be the hottest in human history, with Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva calling it an “unprecedented climate emergency” yesterday.

On reaching the final agreement, Modi thanked leaders for their “hard work” and banged a ceremonial gavel to adopt the declaration.

The G20 was conceived in the throes of the 2008 financial crisis as a way to manage the global economy but finding consensus among members has been difficult in recent years. Even the relevance of the grouping was called into question before the summit, with Chinese President Xi Jinping opting to stay at home – a move widely seen as a deliberate snub. Nonetheless, global leaders announced a multinational rail and ports deal linking the Middle East and South Asia on the sidelines of the summit.

Multinational deal

The pact comes at a critical time as US President Joe Biden seeks to counter China’s Belt and Road push on global infrastructure by pitching Washington as an alternative partner and investor for developing countries. Biden said it was a “real big deal” that would bridge ports across two continents and lead to a “more stable, more prosperous and integrated Middle East.”

He said at an event announcing the pact that it would unlock “endless opportunities” for clean energy, clean electricity, and laying cable to connect communities. “Today, as we embark upon such a big connectivity initiative, we are sowing the seeds for future generations to dream bigger,” Modi said.

The deal aims to link the Middle East countries by railway and connect them to India by port, helping the flow of energy and trade from the Gulf to Europe, US officials have said, by cutting shipping times, costs and fuel use. A memorandum of understanding for the deal is set to be signed by the EU, India, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the US and other G20 partners.

India/Bharat

Modi has a heavy personal investment in the success of the summit, which he has billed as India’s diplomatic coming of age and has used to boost his domestic standing before elections next year. The country has been buzzing with speculation over rumoured plans to scrap official usage of the country’s English name, after a state-issued invite sent to world leaders referred to it as “Bharat”.

Modi’s government has worked to remove lingering symbols of British rule from India’s urban landscape, political institutions and history books, but its next move could be the biggest such action yet. Modi himself typically refers to India as “Bharat”, a word dating back to ancient Hindu scriptures written in Sanskrit, and one of two official names for the country under its constitution.

Modi’s placard at the opening of the summit referred to India as “Bharat”, raising speculation of a change of name for the South Asian nation. A spokesperson for the Prime Minister’s Office did not respond to a request for comment. The G20 meeting continues today.

Reporting by ANI, Xinhua, AFP and Reuters