- The Strategist - https://www.aspistrategist.org.au -

G20 foreign ministers’ meeting: almost pointlessness but irreplaceable in the margins

Posted By on July 15, 2022 @ 11:00

The G20 foreign ministers’ meeting on 8 July in Bali was almost certainly a harbinger of the G20 leaders’ meeting scheduled for later this year, and a graphic illustration of why the G20 in the current circumstances is both teetering on the brink of pointlessness and incidentally irreplaceable.

Ending without a joint communiqué and group photo, the central meeting sent two clear messages. The world will lose nothing by G20 members not boycotting the event. But nor will it likely gain anything from a meeting bound to be marked by bitter disharmony and drama. Not even a communiqué. Or a photo.

On that measure, the Bali meeting was a failure. That wasn’t Indonesia’s fault. No host could have done any better at cushioning the clash of values and interests currently defining relations among the G20’s members, especially since Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine.

The meeting just made that clash more graphic. Just like at the G20 finance ministers’ meeting in Washington in April, a protest walkout took place. But this time the walker was Russia’s Sergei Lavrov, professing his indignation at Western ministers’ ‘frenzied’ condemnations of his country’s behaviour as that of ‘aggressors, invaders, occupiers’. Evidently the truth hurt.

Not content with one theatrical, fuming march from the room, Lavrov reportedly also left the premises just before Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, addressed the room virtually as a special guest.

Not that Lavrov enjoyed a monopoly on such moves. Unwilling to sit anywhere near him, G7 ministers had absented themselves from a welcome dinner held the night before that he had happily attended. This time the condemnation came from the walker himself [1], who chided his erstwhile G8 counterparts for their bad manners. ‘This,’ tut-tutted the minister whose troops are firing missiles into schools, residential buildings and shopping malls, ‘is how they understand protocol, politeness and code of conduct.’

Pressed for her reaction to her G7 counterparts’ manners, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi was more interested in underscoring her intention of ensuring her guests’ comfort. ‘We are trying to create a comfortable situation for all,’ she insisted, adding that she understood ‘the situation because once again, everyone has to feel comfortable’.

How comfortable Marsudi was with her Russian guest’s behaviour, however, can only be the subject of speculation. But presumably she would at least have been nonplussed by Lavrov’s absence from plenary discussions on the food price inflation and insecurity caused by Russia’s invasion and blockade of Ukrainian grain exports, as German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock has disclosed.

After all, she and her president, Joko Widodo, had visited Moscow less than a fortnight earlier not only ostensibly to persuade Putin to give peace a chance but also to allow Ukrainian wheat to make its way to a hungry world, including millions of noodle-loving Indonesians. That her other guests were so determined to stress that Russia had stopped neither its brutality nor its blockade despite Widodo’s ‘peace mission’ must have sat uncomfortably with Lavrov’s assertion [2] in his own speech that Russia would ‘continue to make a significant contribution to ensuring access to food and energy resources’—presumably by shipping more of its own wheat and what it’s allegedly stolen from Ukraine.

According to the Russian news agency TASS [2], however, Lavrov enjoyed the sympathy and support of his country’s other G20 partners. Russia’s foreign ministry issued a statement dutifully conveyed by TASS claiming that there had been ‘sober assessments of the objective causes’ of the prevailing global economic shocks that were principally the fault of ‘the West’, and that ‘many partners gave a clear signal that it’s unacceptable to isolate Russia’. The same source indicated widespread support for Russia’s contention that ‘a polycentric structure of the world order and the democratization of global governance’ were necessary, along with ‘a broader engagement of dialogue on multilateral platforms to solve the problems of developing countries’.

Lavrov no doubt emphasised Western culpability for all these problems, Russia’s credentials as the developing world’s champion, and the advantages of ‘polycentricity’ in his meetings with ‘counterparts from Asia, Africa and Latin America’ on the event’s margins. How many actually bought such self-serving misdirection remains unknown, but it probably registered sweetly in the ears of those most inclined to cast international affairs in a similar, doctrinal light, including a few among Marsudi’s own lieutenants in Indonesia’s foreign ministry.

Others also took full advantage of the opportunity for sideline meetings, not least both the United States and China. Their own bilateral meetings, judging by official US statements, were both extensive in their subject matter and ‘candid’. But subsequent critical remarks from each about the other suggest that however welcome their meeting was as an avenue for discussing opportunities for more bilateral cooperation on such matters as climate change, global health and food security, their divisions over Taiwan and the South China Sea, among other issues, remain as deep and entrenched as ever.

For different reasons, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s meeting with Widodo [3] on 11 July in Jakarta was almost as significant if far less candid. Besides expressing China’s appreciation for Indonesia’s able and ‘wise’ chairing of the G20, as Marsudi explained to Indonesia’s media, Wang praised Widodo’s peace mission to Ukraine and Russia. The pair also discussed a raft of bilateral commercial and health sector issues, as well as progress on projects partially funded under China’s Belt and Road Initiative, including the controversial and troubled Jakarta–Bandung high-speed railway project.

From an Australian perspective, Foreign Minister Penny Wong’s sideline meeting with Wang in Bali was another welcome development, if merely a first, tentative step in the direction towards a relationship restored at least to a level that China has with most other liberal democracies.

The Bali meeting also afforded an opportunity to stage a meeting of MIKTA, the grouping of Mexico, Indonesia, Korea, Turkey and Australia, on the margins. According to the Mexican foreign ministry [4], the participants discussed the war in Ukraine and ‘mechanisms to assure the availability of, and trade in, grains and fertilizer, along with the theme of migration’.

What good this side meeting achieved remains to be revealed. But if the original rationale for MIKTA was the unique role that these non-G7, non-BRICS countries collectively might create for themselves in conceiving and steering solutions to critical global issues in the context of the inherent tensions arising from the G20’s eclectic mix of political systems and developed and emerging economies, the need for actually doing that has surely never been more urgent.

Hopefully such a disparate minilateral grouping can rise to the challenge. Its members should try. Doing so would help preserve the G20’s credibility, and that’s in all their interests. But it’s easy to be sceptical that it can. It’s even easier to predict that it won’t.

The Bali meeting would therefore appear to have been more valuable for what happened around it than within it. That may well be the same story come November when the leaders gather and hold their own bilaterals on the margins.

That’s not enough to give a ringing endorsement for a body whose achievements, thanks to its widening internal divisions, have been few in recent times and risk being non-existent this time. It may not be enough to dispel whatever doubts have arisen and strengthened in capitals about the G20’s worth—doubts that in some were there from the beginning.

But given the dire, disorderly state of international affairs today, its marginal meetings should probably be reason enough even for the major powers to persist with it until such time as conditions are more conducive for the constructive cooperation that marked the G20’s earliest years—a moment that seems inconceivable so long as Putin reigns in the Kremlin.

Article printed from The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/g20-foreign-ministers-meeting-almost-pointlessness-but-irreplaceable-in-the-margins/

URLs in this post:

[1] came from the walker himself: https://www.benarnews.org/english/news/indonesian/russian-fm-walks-out-of-g20-meeting-over-condemnation-of-ukraine-war-07082022150549.html

[2] Lavrov’s assertion: https://tass.com/politics/1477531

[3] Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s meeting with Widodo: https://en.tempo.co/read/1610967/president-jokowi-chinas-wang-yi-hold-meeting-in-jakarta

[4] According to the Mexican foreign ministry: https://www.gob.mx/sre/articulos/el-canciller-arribo-a-bali-indonesia-para-la-reunion-de-ministros-del-g20-tuvo-encuentros-con-homologos-de-la-ue-india-sudafrica-y-mikta?idiom=es

Copyright © 2024 The Strategist. All rights reserved.