Last week’s G20 summit in Bali was bookended by two major geopolitical dramas. Just before the summit started, US President Biden and President Xi of China held a three-hour meeting that re-opened the prospect of great power coexistence despite intensifying US-China tensions, especially over Taiwan. And, following difficult negotiations, it produced a summit declaration that opened with language from the UN General Assembly’s 2 March resolution on Ukraine, saying it ‘deplores in the strongest terms the aggression by the Russian Federation against Ukraine and demands its complete and unconditional withdrawal from the territory of Ukraine’, a much more robust criticism of Russia’s actions than many in Washington and Europe had initially expected.
But it would be wrong to interpret this summit as simply another showdown between the world’s big powers: China and Russia, on one side, and the US and its European and Pacific allies, on the other. Instead, the lead-up to the summit, as well as the summit itself, revealed the growing international confidence and influence of the eight remaining members of the G20: Argentina, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and Turkey. This diverse group of countries all see the Ukraine conflict as a dangerous hangover from the Cold War and a distraction from the economic security and development that is so important for their future.
A first sign of their new-found self-confidence was their role in helping to manage the stand-off over Ukraine between the big powers in Bali which, had it been left unresolved, would have confirmed commentary about the G20’s diminishing value. Rather than sit on the fence, they backed the US and its allies in the use of the UN language. But it was Modi’s phrase ‘today’s era must not be of war’ – which he had used a month earlier to admonish Vladimir Putin at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Samarkand – that concluded the summit’s statement on Ukraine.
Having set this issue to one side, the bulk of the final declaration and the more meaningful elements of the G20’s future work plan underscored the G20’s traditional focus on economic cooperation and the Indonesian presidency’s non-confrontational core theme of ‘recover together, recover stronger’. In addition to the usual pledges to preserve macroeconomic stability, address the climate crisis and ease the debt burden of some of the world’s most vulnerable countries, there are five full paragraphs of commitments to promote global food security; an equally large and specific section on global health coordination; a notable extension of the Financial Stability Board’s responsibilities to oversee non-bank financial intermediation and crypto-currency exchanges; and important new commitments on infrastructure investment.
Joko Widodo, Indonesia’s president and summit host, laid the groundwork for this constructive outcome with his pre-summit global shuttle diplomacy, which included trips to Washington DC, Moscow and Beijing. His plausibility as a neutral convenor at a time of sharp international tensions was buttressed by the fact that while Indonesia has condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at the UN, it has not imposed sanctions on Russia in response.
India now takes up the G20 presidency and has stressed that it will build on the conclusions from Bali, emphasizing food and energy security, as well as more inclusive digital development. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also informed other G20 members that India’s close partners Oman and the United Arab Emirates will be invited to over 200 G20 working meetings ahead of the next summit.
Second, the lead-up to the summit showed that in contrast to the Cold War when great power competition subsumed the rest of the world, this rivalry is now enabling other members of the G20 to triangulate between the two sides in pursuit of their own interests.
President Erdogan of Turkey arrived at the summit having successfully extended a deal that allows Ukrainian and Russian grain exports to pass through the Black Sea under UN auspices, while continuing to provide arms to Ukraine and striking an agreement with Putin to expand trade with Russia.
Mohammed Bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, came to Bali having weathered sharp criticism from Washington over his deal with Russia and other OPEC+ members to cut oil production at a moment of soaring inflation in Western economies and in the run-up to the US midterm elections.
But there is no better example than India of the way in which deepening geopolitical competition has given new political leverage to the G20’s non-aligned members. In October, India imported 30 times more oil from Russia than it did prior to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. At the same time, India is being wooed by the US, EU and UK as a strategic democratic ally in the Indo-Pacific and as an alternative to China as a leading economic and technology partner.