India: Modi’s call for AU membership in the G20 and the China factor
The Hindu nationalist leader’s G20 Africa membership appeal casts him in a heroic, anti-imperialist glow. What does his silence on the same issue among BRICS members reveal?
India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi’s recent call for the African Union’s full membership in the G20 in June 2023 revives the longstanding debate over the G20’s enlargement. The call for the AU’s membership echoes previous calls by other members. Before hosting the G20 Summit last year, Indonesia – not unlike the way Modi has gone about it – raised the issue for discussion. More recently, US President Joe Biden championed the cause of full membership for the AU. Ostensibly, Washington wants to enhance representation; keener observers suspect other motives, not least countering growing Chinese influence in Africa.
South Africa is the only African country with a permanent seat in the G20, while the European Union (EU) is the sole non-state entity represented. Despite almost half the G20 members belonging to the Global North, the Global South and swing states enjoy relatively stronger positions within the G20 than other platforms. Remarkably, Africa still does not have a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council, and faces underrepresentation or limited influence in institutions such as the IMF and, more than a little surprisingly, its own African Development Bank; only five of the top ten shareholders are African states, with the US, Japan, Germany, Canada and France the other significant minority shareholders.
While the African Union joining the G20 would improve global governance and continental representation, India’s interest in this issue goes beyond representation. New Delhi’s realpolitik, strategic, domestic and international considerations play a significant role in its AU call.
The G20 is essentially an economic club, representing approximately 85% of global GDP. If the AU joined it, the G21 would be even more representative, Africa’s population constituting 17% of humanity, and its economy adding $3 trillion into the G21 pot. And with its inordinate share of minerals powering the digital age, it is Africa’s strategic importance to the future that would be at the heart of the G21’s raison d’etre.
India’s Domestic and Global Quest
India’s AU request plays into Modi’s bigger agenda to project himself to domestic audiences as an influential global figure by fusing India’s prestige as host of the G20 meetings with his own as current G20 president. Karishma Mehrotra and Gerry Shih have commented on India’s unprecedented PR campaign around this year’s summit: projecting a hologram onto Humayun’s Tomb; parading G20-themed floats at local religious festivals; incorporating the G20 logo into nationwide pupils’ exams; launching a national billboard campaign themed ‘India: Mother of Democracy’, all of which raise the ruling BJP’s Hindu nationalist jingoism to new heights.
Part of Modi’s goal is to position himself as the voice of the developing world. Indeed, this quest carries echoes of India’s anti-colonialist history as a bulwark of the Non-Aligned Movement, recalling first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru’s foreign policy approach.
Prime Minister Modi emphasised the connection between being the voice of the Global South and his support for the African Union’s membership, stating in a speech, “Giving a voice to the Global South is the way forward; that is why I firmly believe African Union be given full membership of G20.” This sentiment reflects India’s commitment to advocating the interests and representation of developing nations on the international stage.
Modi’s AU advocacy aligned as it is with Washington’s entrenched China antipathy, may be an attempt to balance the latter’s growing influence, cultivated over the past two decades via what some detractors describe as ‘debt trap diplomacy’. Given, however, that both India and China are BRICS members, Modi’s support for AU membership at the G20 will ultimately count as part of the longer struggle to rebalance global power in favour of the South. In realpolitik terms, however, it allows New Delhi autonomously to pursue global influence and leverage, furthering its geopolitical goals.
Contrary to India’s insistence on G20’s enlargement, India does not welcome enlargement in BRICS – a quintet organisation in which Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa are members. This is partly due to the fact that any possible BRICS engagement will not favour India, but will likely increase Chinese influence on the bloc. Forty nations have shown interest in joining BRICS. Among these possible members, African nations have shown great interest, such as Algeria, Libya, Morocco, Egypt, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Comoros, and Gabon. Because the influence of India might decrease with the enlargement of BRICS, Modi does not show a similar embracement of the Global South’s representation.
Moreover, looking at this year’s G20 guest list, Indian strategic choices betray its domestic preoccupations. India invited Oman and the United Arab Emirates, two Gulf countries hosting thousands of Indian migrant workers whose remittances constitute an important source of family and wider support. Considering the region is already represented by Saudi Arabia in the G20, the choice is more about bilateral relations than regional representation. Similarly, the invitation of Bangladesh to the summit shows the alliance’s role in the invitation.
Most of the G20 members declared their support for the African Union’s membership application. For example, Canada, Brazil, China, Russia, South Africa, France, the US, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, India, Japan, and Italy, already announced that they will support the AU’s membership. Should it happen, it will be the first-ever enlargement since the club’s foundation in 1999. Indeed, this will test their honesty and a chance for better global representation in important institutions such as G20. Moreover, because G20 discusses issues that affect the continent significantly, such as climate, food security, and trade, it is important for around 50 countries to be represented by more than just South Africa.