When mere face-to-face meetings between the leaders of the G20 group of countries are viewed as a sign of success, this illustrates the complexity of relations between the major powers.
On the sidelines of the G20 summit held on the Indonesian island of Bali this week, US President Joe Biden met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in the first meeting between the two leaders since Biden took office in January 2021.
Although the two sides stressed the divergence between them regarding economic competition, the Russian-Ukrainian war, Taiwan, and human rights issues, the mere holding of the meeting was considered by many as evidence of success.
The main takeaway was that there was no need for a “new cold war” or nuclear escalation, as both countries signalled optimism over their relations despite the differences between them.
Another significant meeting was the face-to-face talks between Xi and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on the sidelines of the G20. Relations between China and Australia are at their lowest for years amidst disputes over trade, human rights, and foreign interference, and the meeting was the first between the two leaders for six years.
In a statement following the meeting, the Australian Prime Minister’s office said that the two leaders had discussed trade, security, and human rights issues in a “positive and constructive” meeting that was “another important step towards the stabilisation of the Australia-China relationship”.
Ahead of the meeting, which lasted just over half an hour, Albanese had said he looked forward to a constructive dialogue and praised the fact that “both sides have worked to stabilise the relationship based upon mutual respect and mutual benefit.”
“Our bilateral relationship is an important one…Dialogue is always a good thing,” he said.
French President Emmanuel Macron also met with China’s Xi and called for Paris and Beijing to unite against the war in Ukraine, urging more Chinese pressure to end the war and bring Russia to the negotiating table.
The pair shook hands and smiled as they opened the talks, with Macron saying they must “unite forces to respond... to international crises like Russia’s war in Ukraine.” Xi made no direct mention of the conflict, according to a readout by the Chinese News Agency Xinhua, but described the world as being in a “period of turbulence and transformation” and called for “openness and cooperation.”
The meeting reflects the strength of relations between Paris and Beijing. The French president has a pragmatic attitude towards competition with China in which interests outweigh differences.
The same thing is true of the German position on China. German Chancellor Olaf Schulz visited China at the beginning of this month with an economic delegation to strengthen economic and trade relations between Berlin and Beijing.
However, for some countries face-to-face meetings on the sidelines of the summit were not easy to secure. The White House announced that there would be no meeting between Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, for example. Nor would there be a meeting between Biden and UAE President Mohamed bin Zayed.
While British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak sought to secure a meeting on the sidelines of the summit with the Chinese president, the deterioration in relations between London and Beijing reduced the possibility of holding it.
Sunak has rowed back from officially recategorising China as a “threat,” saying he views the country as a “systemic challenge” instead in a change in rhetoric that could draw criticism from UK Conservative Party hawks who see China as a threat to the Western-dominated international order.
Speaking at the G20, Sunak defended his approach and said it was in line with most of the UK’s allies. “My view on China is straightforward. I think that China unequivocally poses a systemic threat – well, a systemic challenge – to our values, and our interests, and is undoubtedly the biggest state-based threat to our economic security…That’s how I think about China,” he said.
“So, if you look at the US national security strategy that was published just a couple of weeks ago, and if you look at how they describe their view of China and how to deal with it, I think you’ll find that it’s very similar to how I’ve just described it to you. The Canadians, the Australians, their versions of that strategy all say similar things…[this] is the shared view amongst our closest allies.”
Sunak argued that world leaders could not ignore China as a vital player. “I also think that China is an indisputable fact of the global economy, and we’re not going to be able to resolve shared global challenges like climate change, or public health, or indeed actually dealing with Russia and Ukraine, without having a dialogue with them.”
Even though this summit is one of the most important G20 meetings in recent years due to the unprecedented scale of the international challenges, there is little confidence in the ability of the assembled leaders to achieve a breakthrough on any of the pressing issues.
The group suffers from divisions, disagreements, and distrust, and its leaders have different perceptions of the world order, its future, and its rules.
At the top of the agenda were the global economic crisis, the fears of trade war and recession, the Russian-Ukrainian war, the nuclear threat, the international economic recovery after Covid-19, food security, energy security, cyber security, and human rights.
The G20 final communique showed the cracks inside the group as “most” members, but not all, condemned the war in Ukraine. “This year, we have also witnessed the war in Ukraine further adversely impacting the global economy,” the communique read. “Most members strongly condemned the war in Ukraine.”
It notes there were “other views,” however, and that the “G20 is not the forum to resolve security issues.” But its members acknowledged that security issues could “have significant consequences for the global economy”.
The communique also called for the extension of a deal with Russia that would allow the export of Ukrainian grain.
The war has caused a devastating spike in global food and energy prices, tipping millions more into poverty and raising the danger of famine for some. The Ukraine and Russia are the world’s top grain producers. Russia blocked 20 million tons of grain until the UN and Turkey brokered a deal giving shipments safe passage. That deal expires on 19 November, and the communique urges its “full, timely, and continued implementation.”
It also called the use or threats to use nuclear weapons “inadmissible,” arguing “today’s era must not be of war.”
The Biden administration has sent several messages over the past few days that negotiations must begin to end the war. The European countries are suffering from inflation and an economic slowdown, and they fear a painful economic recession, but the worst of their fears is nuclear war by mistake or miscalculation.
But how to stop the war was a question that no leader was able to address during the summit.
So far, the gap between Ukraine and Russia seems difficult to bridge. Ukraine proposes that Russia withdraw from all its territories, including Crimea, and that Moscow pay compensation for the damage inflicted on it by the war.
Moscow has annexed Crimea and regions in eastern and southern Ukraine, and it is difficult to see it withdraw voluntarily. Russia also argues that its security concerns must be addressed to end the war.
Few countries can play the role of mediator, though they include China and possibly India.
Addressing the G20, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for peace and diplomatic negotiations to end the Russia-Ukraine war. “I have repeatedly said that we have to find a way to return to the path of ceasefire and diplomacy in Ukraine,” he said, adding that the onus of creating a new world order for the post-Covid period “lies on our shoulders.”
Modi’s speech about creating a new world order emphasises the more powerful role that India plays in the geopolitics of the Russia-Ukraine war as it has a good relationship with both the West and Russia.
India has abstained from UN votes denouncing the Russian invasion and has continued to be outwardly neutral. However, Modi has remained in constant contact with Russian President Vladimir Putin, with whom he is said to have a good relationship.
India is also reported to have played a background role in persuading Russia to allow shipments of Ukrainian wheat to leave ports to ease global food shortages.
India will take over the G20 presidency next year and will host the summit meeting. Modi said that the UN had failed to tackle some of the most pressing challenges of today and therefore the “relevance of G20 has become more significant.”
International summits that last two days do not end conflicts and wars, but they may pave the way for this by setting a framework for diplomatic solutions. At the G20 summit, there was an unambiguous message echoed by the leaders that the Russian-Ukrainian war must end, but the question remains how.
Another striking feature of the summit was the number of bilateral meetings held with China’s XI, who remained the man most world leaders wanted to sit with.
The G20 leaders have different perceptions of the world order, its future, and its rules. Russia, China, and India, among other countries, are keen to articulate the need for a new, more representative order that takes into account the multiplicity of the international powers and their interests, ideologies, values, and systems of governance.
But the US and its allies still want to preserve the order they dominated for the last 70 years.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 November, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.