G20 leaders to begin two-day summit overshadowed by divisions over Ukraine

India's prime minister Narendra Modi (C) addresses the G20 Leaders' Summit at the Bharat Mandapam in New Delhi on 9 September, 2023AFP

Leaders of the world's 20 most powerful nations begin an annual summit on Saturday in India's capital New Delhi, deeply divided over the war in Ukraine but in broad agreement on issues such as cryptocurrencies and reforms in multilateral development banks.

US president Joe Biden and other leaders of the Group of 20 nations will gather for the two-day summit at a new, $300 million conch-shaped convention centre called Bharat Mandapam, opposite a 16th-century stone fort.

Businesses, shops, offices and schools have been closed in Delhi, a city of 20 million, and traffic restricted as part of security measures to ensure the smooth running of the most high-powered meeting to be hosted by the country. Slums have been demolished and monkeys and stray dogs removed from the streets.

According to a draft of the summit declaration reviewed by Reuters, negotiators were unable to resolve disagreements over the wording on the war in Ukraine, leaving it to the leaders to reach a compromise if possible.

The 38-page draft that was circulated among members left the "geopolitical situation" paragraph blank, while it had agreed on the 75 other paragraphs.

Biden will press for a higher level of climate action from major countries at the summit, a White House official said, as concerns grow about lack of consensus on cutting emissions.

G20 sherpas, or country negotiators, have been struggling for days to agree on the language because of differences over the war, hoping to get Russia on board to produce what is called the Leaders' Declaration.

Russia is being represented by foreign minister Sergei Lavrov at the meeting, and he has said he will block the final declaration unless it reflects Moscow's position on Ukraine and other crises.

One source told Reuters a joint declaration may or may not come to a unanimous agreement. It could have different paragraphs stating the views of different countries. Or it could record agreement and dissent in one paragraph.

"We may paper over the differences and make a general statement saying we should have peace and harmony across the world so that everybody agrees," a second source said.

According to another senior source in one of the G20 countries, the paragraph on the war on Ukraine had been agreed by Western countries and sent to Russia for its views.

The official said Russia had the option to accept Western countries' views and give its dissent as part of the statement. In the absence of an agreement, India will have to issue a chair statement, which would mean that G20 for the first time in 20 years of summits will not have a declaration.

Other issues to be settled

A Leaders' Declaration "is by far the best way to record what has been agreed, so that countries can be held to account in the future by external parties, and so that government systems know what their leaders have signed up to and what they need to do internally", said Creon Butler, director for the global economy and finance programme at London's Chatham House.

"A chair's statement would not have anything like the same effect. It would certainly lead to a crisis of confidence in the Group."

An EU diplomat said Russia was "blocking a compromise that is acceptable otherwise for everyone else".

The document showed that the group agreed to address debt vulnerabilities in low and middle-income countries "in an effective, comprehensive and systematic manner", but did not produce a plan for fresh action.

The draft also shows countries pledged to strengthen and reform multilateral development banks, while it accepted the proposal for tighter regulations of cryptocurrencies.

It also agreed that the world needs a total of $4 trillion low-cost financing annually for energy transition. The draft did not mention a fossil fuel phase-down.

The two-day summit is expected to be dominated by the West and its allies. Chinese president Xi Jinping is skipping the meeting and sending prime minister Li Qiang instead, while Russia's Vladimir Putin will also be absent.

US president Joe Biden is welcomed by India's minister of State for Road Transport & Highways Vijay Kumar Singh and Vani Sarraju Rao, Joint Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs, as he arrives ahead of G20 Summit, in New Delhi, India, 8 September, 2023

Biden, German chancellor Olaf Scholz, French president Emmanuel Macron, British prime minister Rishi Sunak, Saudi Arabia's Mohammed Bin Salman and Japan's Fumio Kishida, among others, will attend.

The hardened stance on the war has prevented agreement on even a single communique at the ministerial meetings during India's G20 presidency so far this year.

China, Russia's most powerful ally, said on Friday it is willing to work with all parties and push for a positive outcome at the summit.

India has avoided blaming Moscow for the war and has called for a solution through dialogue and diplomacy.

Prime minister Narendra Modi's government is projecting India's presidency of the group and the summit as a showcase for the country's fast-growing economy and its rising global stature.

G20 expansion

The agreement to discuss the project could be among the most tangible developments at a summit that has highlighted deep-seated divisions between key G20 members over Russia's war in Ukraine and how to pay for climate change.

The summit is nonetheless expected to agree to the accession of the African Union, giving the continent -- whose only G20 member is South Africa -- more of a voice on the global stage.

The Group of 20 was conceived in the throes of the 2008 financial crisis as a way of managing the global economy.

But finding consensus among members has been increasingly difficult in recent years.

Even before it began, the importance of the New Delhi summit was called into question when China's Xi Jinping decided to skip the meeting and send his number two, Premier Li Qiang, to India instead.

No official reason was given for Xi's absence, but the Asian giants have been at loggerheads over a border dispute and other issues, while Beijing is seeking to make US-led groupings such as the G20 more amenable to its own interests.

Russia's seat is taken by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, with diplomatic opprobrium and war crimes charges keeping the country's leader Vladimir Putin from the summit.

United Nations chief Antonio Guterres warned Friday of growing global divisions, insisting countries must assume responsibility regardless of "whether it's the president or the prime minister or the vice president" who is in New Delhi.

Climate 'out of control'

The backdrop to the talks could hardly be starker: the European Union's climate monitor has said this year is likely to be the hottest in human history, with Guterres declaring on Friday the "climate crisis is spiralling out of control".

G20 countries account for around 85 percent of global climate warming emissions, making action in the forum crucial to real progress.

India's Modi has painted the summit as his country's diplomatic coming of age -- evidence of New Delhi's clout and prestige on the global stage.

Modi argues developing nations need a greater say in global decision-making.

But on Ukraine, there was little sign of progress.

Moscow continues to press its allies to water down international condemnation of its invasion of Ukraine, throwing up a major roadblock to joint action.

India PM Modi greets leaders arriving at G20 summit

Indian prime minister Narendra Modi greeted arriving world leaders for Saturday's G20 summit in New Delhi, television broadcasts showed.

Modi shook hands with most arrivals in New Delhi as the Indian capital readies for the two-day discussion of Ukraine, climate change and other contentious global issues.

Indian prime minister Narendra Modi greets as waits to welcome leaders of the G20 countries, in New Delhi, India, Saturday on 9 September, 2023

But with the G20 expected to welcome the African Union into its ranks this weekend, he greeted the grouping's chair and Comoros president Azali Assoumani with a warm embrace.

The expansion of the bloc into the "G21" would be a notable diplomatic victory for Modi, who faces national elections next year and has used hosting rights for this year's forum to burnish his image as an international statesman.

Finding consensus among members has been increasingly difficult in recent years with deep divisions on the Ukraine war.

Russia's Vladimir Putin and China's Xi Jinping have skipped this year's summit altogether.

Moscow continues to press allies to water down international condemnation of its invasion of Ukraine, throwing up a major roadblock to joint action.