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In the Room and On the Sidelines of the G20

18 Nov 2022
By Colin Chapman FAIIA
G20 Summit opening ceremony. Source: Paul Kagame

President Joko Widodo, better known as Jokowi, hosted what has been said to feel “like the first global summit of a second cold war.” Both its official outcomes and events that occurred on the sidelines are noteworthy.

The place for your editor-at-large to be last week should have been Bali, the tropical resort of Indonesia.  The big players were at the table: China’s President Xi Jinping and President Joe Biden of the United States. The presidents of the world’s largest democracy, India, and Africa’s strongest power, South Africa, were there, as were the leaders of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, hard on the heels of attending the climate change summit, COP-27, in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt.

Alas, I was marooned in a hospital in England following a back injury, which allowed me only to reflect that being in a horizontal position is not the best place from which to observe a rotating world – unless the task in hand is to produce a report on the deficiencies of Britain’s National Health Service. That will have to wait because, while I have been laid up, there have been three significant developments, two of which have occurred on the fringes of Jokowi’s well organised summit. The G20, once regarded as one of the fringe meetings on the international economic circuit, is now without doubt the most important, as it gathers together the limited number of countries that are democracies with a powerful group of autocracies and others blessed with extraordinary wealth, much of it created from fossil fuels that the rest of the world wishes to abandon.

First, was Xi’s unexpected pronouncement on nuclear war. The White House reported that at a meeting with Biden lasting just over three hours, the two leaders “reiterated their agreement that a nuclear war should never be fought and can never be won and underscored their opposition to the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine,” thus belying the repeated hints from Russia’s Vladimir Putin that he may just have to make use of one of these tactical nuclear weapons to fulfil his objectives in Ukraine.

The official report from Xinhua news agency said Xi had told Biden: “First, there are no winners in conflict and war; second, there are no simple solutions to complex problems; third, confrontation between great powers must be avoided.” The business-like and cordial nature of the meeting was also evident in the body language between the two leaders when they met briefly in front of reporters.

A further development was the formal bilateral meeting of just over 30 minutes between Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Xi at a resort down the road from the G20 leaders. The last Australian prime minister to meet Xi was Malcolm Turnbull in 2016, since which time Australian relations with and exports to China have plummeted. Albanese can be well satisfied with his first significant meeting on the international stage, taking a firm line as expected but also making it very clear that Australia looks to China as a long-term friend, not a foe.

Jokowi has always believed that G20 should be non-aligned, but in the absence of Putin, he allowed the anti-Russian fervour to grow.  By the time the final draft of the communique had been drawn up on Tuesday, it was clear that Moscow was facing condemnation for the war in Ukraine. The final draft, later adopted, “stressed it is causing immense human suffering and exacerbating existing fragilities in the global economy,” and it condemned threats to use nuclear weapons.

On the G20 sidelines, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s most senior official, and noted afterward that Russia had reiterated its position that a nuclear war was “impossible and inadmissible.”  Wang added that it was “a rational and responsible position from Russia,” the South China Morning Post reported. “We are glad that Russia has signalled dialogue and agreed to resume the implementation of the agreement on grain exports across the Black Sea,” it reported the Chinese as saying.

Before wrapping up in Bali, the G20 summit did the world another favour.  It sent a timely reminder to delegates still at COP-27 that it expected them to stick to the 1.5 degrees Celsius target for global warming agreed at COP-26 in Glasgow last year. This followed reports that there were several “waiverers” in Sharm El-Sheikh who were minded to abandon the target.

Lavrov flew home to Moscow empty handed and foregoing the humiliation of having to witness the adoption of the communique on the final day. Meanwhile, Jokowi passed the baton of the G20 presidency to India’s Narendra Modi – until now one of Putin’s closest allies.

Finally, one person who will have returned from Indonesia in a better mood than when he departed the United States is President Joe Biden. Two weeks ago, if you believed the American pollsters and a large section of the media, Biden would have been staring at the “red wave” of a Republican surge in the midterm elections. The surge never happened, and a significant number of Republican candidates personally endorsed by the odious Donald Trump failed to win their seats, giving the Democrats new heart to fight off a challenge by Trump in 2024. As expected, Trump announced his candidacy on November 15 with a characteristic display of exhibitionism at a party in the grand ballroom of his Mar-a-Lago residence in Florida, attended mostly by his own glitterati and media. His message – of course – was Make America Great Again.

Colin Chapman FAIIA is editor-at-large of Australian Outlook and a fellow of the Australian Institute of International Affairs. He was president of AIIA New South Wales. Colin is a writer, broadcaster, and public speaker who specialises in geopolitics, international economics, and global media issues. He has held executive positions at the BBC and Financial Times.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.