Russia should not be allowed in this year’s festival of summits
25 Mar 2022|

The fictional British prime minister Jim Hacker once opined that summits were public relations circuses offering less scope for negotiating solutions to international problems than state funerals.

That might be harsh. But a spate of leaders’ meetings in Southeast Asia in November could prove Hacker right if Russian President Vladimir Putin or one of his minions attends them.

Of these, the G20 leaders’ meeting in Bali is so far attracting the most attention.

As host, Indonesia has a profound interest in the summit being a success irrespective of the global ructions that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has generated. It wants to use the occasion to promote President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo’s agenda of economic development and champion the interests of emerging and developing economies in the post-pandemic global economy.

Accordingly, Jakarta intends to adhere to its pre-invasion agenda of global health architecture, a sustainable energy transition and digital transformation, themes dear to emerging economies like Indonesia.

Nor is Jakarta alone in hoping that the G20 will proceed in a parallel universe to that now dominated by images of destroyed cities and dead children. Russia certainly does.

China, too, is cheering Indonesia on. Foreign Minister Wang Yi had reportedly urged his Indonesian counterpart, Retno Marsudi, not to allow Ukraine to be discussed at the G20 leaders’ summit. China’s foreign ministry spokesperson reiterated that the G20 was not an appropriate place to discuss the crisis in Ukraine, echoing Indonesia’s argument that the forum was designed for promoting multilateral economic cooperation.

That the G20 is ostensibly an economic grouping, not a political and strategic one, is undeniable. But that ignores the fact that security issues have been on earlier G20 agendas and that the economic consequences of what’s happening are immense and globally disruptive. To argue that Ukraine can’t be on the G20’s agenda now is to ignore the searing reality that effectively it already is.

Jakarta’s position also ignores the fact that most other G20 nations don’t share it, and that were hypothetically the summit to proceed as normal, its chances of achieving anything on its agenda would be zero.  If summits are public relations circuses, this big top promises to be one presided over by a ringmaster hollering about telecommunications infrastructure in Kalimantan while more than half of the performers are busy fending off a crazed lion with whips and chairs. Indonesia’s reputation would be stained in the process.

This reality may now have dawned on Jokowi. Presumably he hasn’t ignored the interventions of US President Joe Biden, European leaders and others like Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison calling for Russia to be kicked out of the G20 and saying that Russia’s presence in Bali would be ‘highly problematic’ for them.

Jokowi may well be hoping that Putin solves this problem simply by staying away. Perhaps he’s hoping that China’s Xi Jinping and India’s Narendra Modi will help him out by persuading Putin to sit it out with promises that they will look after Russia’s interests and ensure Ukraine doesn’t raise its head.

But should the rest of us accept such a quid pro quo just to hold a meeting that ostensibly exists to deal with global economic problems of the kind Putin’s invasion has caused?

And would Putin agree, risking a message to his own citizens that their country had been ostracised for bad behaviour rather than applauded for slaughtering ‘Nazis’? It’s just as likely Putin won’t deny himself the psychotic satisfaction of thumbing his nose at his enemies. According to his ambassador in Jakarta, he intends to go—perhaps virtually or in Lavrovian form if his fear of absenting himself from Moscow or being in closer proximity to the coronavirus deterred him from the trip. In that event, Jokowi shouldn’t expect to be greeting most of the other G20 leaders.

And if indeed the European leaders and others boycotted, Australia’s leader should do so too. That might cause offence in Jakarta, though none would be intended. Canberra would need to manage this properly, advising Jakarta of its decision before telling the rest of the world. But given that the absence of most of the world’s largest economies would make the meeting pointless, despatching our prime minister or a senior minister to Bali in such circumstances would achieve nothing while being morally indefensible.

So, if Indonesia really wants to benefit from hosting the world’s premier economic forum, it should do more than just pray that Russia stays away. Since it would need a consensus of the membership to deny Moscow a place at the table, it should at least be urging China, India and perhaps others to agree to disinviting it. It should not, in effect, be siding with China’s line that Russia could not and should not be kicked out of the G20 or buying its absurd pitch that Russia’s presence would make for ‘true multilateralism’ and ‘strengthen solidarity and cooperation’.

The same applies equally to Thailand, this year’s APEC host. Like Jakarta’s plans for the G20, Bangkok’s goals for APEC go to post-Covid economic resiliency. Like the Indonesians, the Thais and the APEC secretariat seem determined to proceed as if the war in Ukraine had never happened.

But should Putin insist on attending APEC and be welcomed, those economies that seem set on taking a stand against Russia in Bali are hardly likely to behave differently in Bangkok. Others, like New Zealand, would likely join them. And if so, is a summit missing the leaders of most of APEC’s largest economies one that Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha would be content to host?

If she isn’t already, Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne should be losing no more time in getting this message across to her Indonesian and Thai counterparts and urging them to change course. It shouldn’t be too taxing. She can cut and paste her talking points for each brief.

The third of these events, the East Asia Summit, is more complicated story. The EAS is different to the other two institutions. Most of its members are ASEAN states. It operates under ASEAN’s auspices. ASEAN runs it. Only ASEAN members can host it.

ASEAN couldn’t even bring itself to condemn Russia for the invasion. Two of its members, Vietnam and Laos, joined with China and India in abstaining on a UN General Assembly resolution condemning Russia’s action. Only Singapore has voiced explicit condemnation and joined in levelling sanctions against Russia. Persuading ASEAN’s current rotating chair—Cambodia, whose own autocratic leader has enjoyed ties to Moscow stretching back to the 1970s—to preclude Russia’s presence therefore seems the most quixotic quest of them all.

That shouldn’t deter Payne from lobbying her Cambodian equivalent with the same message as before, as well as other key ASEAN partners.

If ASEAN persists in inviting Russia to the East Asia Summit, however, Australia’s response needs a different calibration to its G20 and APEC settings.

The EAS has an enduring salience for Australia’s interests in its most strategically critical region that the other institutions lack. It may be less important in Australia’s strategic calculus now than was a decade ago. It is no substitute for harder forms of deterrence and the likes of the Quad, AUKUS and ANZUS. But it still offers the most important regional diplomatic adjunct to what is currently a defence-heavy strategy for navigating the dangerous uncertainties of the Indo-Pacific’s future. It is destined is to remain the only plurilateral avenue for diplomatic dialogue and mediation in East Asia that might mitigate the risks of conflict.

Boycotting the EAS in protest at Russia’s presence should therefore be off Canberra’s options list. Doing so would achieve nothing while flaring ASEAN members’ doubts about our commitment to regional diplomacy and reducing any influence we have in it. Ceding this turf to China would be most imprudent.

But however much the ASEAN states might wish otherwise, such an eventuality would not make for meetings filled with the spirit of amity and cooperation. And nor should it.

They should expect some of us to attend with chairs and whips.