African Union is now the 21st member of the G20

African Union Chairman and Comoros President Azali Assoumani (R) and India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi gesture during the first session of the G20 Leaders' Summit at the Bharat Mandapam in New Delhi on September 9, 2023. PHOTO | AFP

What you need to know:

  • At full strength the African Union has 55 members, but six junta-ruled nations are currently suspended. Collectively it has a GDP of $3 trillion with some 1.4 billion people.

New Delhi. The African Union joined the Group of 20 leading economies at its summit on Saturday, giving the continent more of a voice on the global stage, with host Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi saying it turned the often divided bloc into the "people's G20".

"With everyone's approval, I request the African Union head to take his seat as a permanent G20 member," Modi said in his opening address, banging a ceremonial gavel.

Modi has painted the summit as India's diplomatic coming of age and is pushing for his country -- which wants a permanent seat on the UN Security Council -- to be seen as a voice of the Global South.

At full strength the African Union has 55 members, but six junta-ruled nations are currently suspended. Collectively it has a GDP of $3 trillion with some 1.4 billion people.

As the G20, the grouping included 19 countries and the European Union, representing 85 percent of the world GDP, with South Africa its only member state from the continent.

It 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.

The AU membership could be among the most tangible outcomes from the summit itself, with Modi trying to forge consensus on a host of contentious issues, and key G20 members deeply divided over Russia's war in Ukraine and how to pay for climate change.

Infrastructure plan

On the summit sidelines, G20 partners will unveil ambitious plans Saturday to bolster trade between India, the Middle East and Europe, the United States said.

It is a modern-day Spice Route that could more closely bind three regions that account for about a third of the global economy -- and represent an alternative to China's vast investment in global infrastructure.

Washington, Saudi Arabia, the EU, UAE and others will sign an agreement on the sidelines of the G20 summit to explore a railway and port project to augment trade flows between Europe and India, officials said.

The agreement comes with Washington actively engaging with Riyadh, a major oil producer and security partner, as it encourages the kingdom to normalise ties with Israel.

(L-R) European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Chairperson of the African Union Azali Assoumani, Australia's Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, US President Joe Biden, Indonesia's President Joko Widodo and Spain's Deputy Prime Minister Nadia Calvino arrive for the opening session of the G20 Leaders' Summit in New Delhi on September 9, 2023. PHOTO | AFP

Jon Finer, US deputy national security advisor, said the announcement came after "months of careful diplomacy, quiet, careful diplomacy, bilaterally and in multilateral settings".

This project "has enormous potential" he said. "But exactly how long it takes, I don't know".

The project is still in the early stages, with participants studying how best to link India's vast 1.4 billion population and quick-growing economy with markets to the west.

But Michael Kugelman, South Asia Institute director at The Wilson Center, said the plan could be a significant response to China's much-vaunted Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) -- which has spread Chinese influence, investments and commerce across Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America.

"If finalised, it would be a game changer that strengthens connectivity between India and the Middle East and would aim to counter BRI," Kugelman posted on X, formerly known as Twitter.

The plans will include data, rail, electricity and hydrogen pipeline links, EU officials told AFP.

Xi absence

Chinese leader Xi Jinping himself is skipping the summit, sending his number two, Premier Li Qiang, to India instead in a move that called into question the meeting's importance.

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.

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.