Bali: G20 struggles for relevance as rifts grow

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Published: 11/15/2022 5:29:55 AM

The annual G20 summit takes place amid heightened tension and distrust between the West and Russia and China following Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.

The island resort of Bali has been decked up for what's being described as Indonesia's coming-out party on the global stage. Balinese artworks and performers can be spotted flaunting the rich tradition and culture of the beachy paradise, famed for its sun, sand and serenity.

Leaders are descending on the Indonesian resort island of Bali this week for the annual Group of Twenty (G20) nations meeting, bringing together the world's top economies, which are all reeling from the fallout of the war in Ukraine.

US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping are among 17 state leaders expected at the November 15-16 summit that includes 19 advanced and emerging economies and the European Union. A notable absentee is Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has decided to skip the event.

Taking place in the backdrop of the war and ensuing Western sanctions on Russia, which have not only stoked global recession fears but also deepened existing divisions among G20 members, the summit is being met with muted expectations.

"The real challenge for this G20 is not so much any particular deliverable or agreement on any issue, because I don't think they'll come to any consensus as a G20, but it's can the body continue to function?" said Josh Lipsky, senior director of the Atlantic Council's GeoEconomics Center.

The G20, was founded in 1999 as a meeting of finance ministers. Later, during the 2008-09 financial crisis it reshaped itself into a summit for state leaders to deal with economic crises and economic downturns. Its members have struggled this year to reach a consensus on pressing matters such as post-pandemic recovery and the ongoing energy and food crisis, amid deep fissures on the Ukraine war and western sanctions against Russia.

"If the group cannot come together and function at this time of real economic hardship for the advanced economies, emerging markets, low-income countries, then it calls fundamentally into question the effectiveness of the group," Lipsky told DW. "So, that's the challenge for the G20 to prove that it's still fit for purpose coming out of these meetings."

Putin's absence a boost for Bali summit

Even as the shadow of Putin looms large over this year's gathering, the Russian president has pulled out of the in-person meeting. Notably, in August after his Moscow visit, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who is the chair of the G20, had confirmed that Putin would be attending.  

International relations experts had reasoned that Putin would use the summit to flaunt to his domestic constituency that he remained a strong leader, create a wedge among Ukraine's Western backers, and show that he was far from isolated.

Some now say Putin didn't really want to sit at the meetings and be lectured by other world leaders, something he had to endure at G20 summits in 2014 and 2015 following Russia's annexation of Crimea.

"Putin was probably embarrassed by Xi's reprimand at the Samarkand meeting and Xi's recent statement with [German Chancellor Olaf] Scholz regarding nuclear weapon use. Without Xi's support, he will not have another nation defending his position," said James Carouso, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former US Department of State official. "Furthermore, he will be subject to criticism for destroying Ukraine's civilian infrastructure, which is a war crime," he told DW.

Putin's absence could spare the summit a major distraction and help it focus on economic matters.

"I know that Jokowi [the Indonesian President] really wanted all the leaders to attend. But given the situation, this is a better outcome for him because you can have a more functional meeting without Putin present than you could with him present," Lipsky said.

Dancers perform during the opening of the B20 Summit, ahead of the G20 leaders’ summitThe rich Balinese culture is on full display during the summitImage: Willy Kurniawan/REUTERS

Biden-Xi get talking

With Putin not around, all eyes were on US President Biden's first face-to-face meeting with China's Xi on Monday on the sidelines of the summit, even though expectations of a major reset in relations between the two countries are extremely low.

Biden has vowed not to make any "fundamental concessions" at the summit, which takes place amid heightened tensions among the world's top two economies over Taiwan and trade.

"Even if Biden and Xi don't agree on anything substantively, just the two leaders meeting face to face. Reopening that really direct face-to-face channel of communication is important," Lipsky said.

The elusive G20 communique

Indonesia has had an unenviable G20 presidency in the aftermath of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Factions within the grouping have emerged: the Group of Seven (G7) advanced economies, including Australia and South Korea; and the non-aligned nations like India and South Africa, which have chosen a relatively neutral course between the west, China and Russia.

Jakarta has struggled to get the grouping to produce a formal communique on its presidency's priority issues, such as energy transition and climate, because of the "differences among countries." Even getting members to agree on issues like food and energy security has been a challenge.

"When the earth is shaking under you, and if you're able to stand in the same place, that's a big accomplishment," Manjeet Kripalani, executive director at Mumbai-based think tank Gateway House, told DW. "Maybe the G20 hasn't seen much progress, but it's an achievement [on the part of Indonesia] just being able to hold on to the ground under the current geopolitical circumstances."

At this point finding common ground for a joint final communique, to be delivered at the close of the summit, is proving elusive.

"It's hard to see how negotiations will go, but on delicate topics, it is very likely that negotiations will bleed into the actual summit," German government sources said. "It's not just the geopolitical situation that's making things difficult, but in terms of food security and energy prices too, there are different assessments on the cause of the crisis and how it should all be worded." 

Looking beyond final declaration

Shinta Kamdani, the chair of Business 20 — the business dialogue forum of the G20 — however, cautions against judging the success of the summit on whether there is a final united communique or not. That would be undermining the rich exchange that's been taking place on health care, energy, debt crisis and other issues during bilateral meetings and side events, she said.

"What we need to see is not the optics of whether there is a final declaration or not, but which are the issues that have been agreed to by all the countries. We need to appreciate that that process has happened," the Indonesian entrepreneur told DW.


By DW 

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