Clara Ferreira Marques

Biden, Putin and Xi? A Good G-20 Turnout, But Not Enough

Indonesian President Joko Widodo has long put domestic concerns ahead of diplomacy. He’s now about to host one of the most significant geopolitical gatherings in years. On Thursday, he told Bloomberg News that Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping plan to attend the Group of 20 summit. For the image-conscious Jokowi, as he is known, that counts as a win — the two leaders have hardly traveled since early 2020, and bringing together US president Joe Biden and the world’s two leading autocrats in Bali could help tackle compounding global security, energy and climate crises.

But the hard work ahead of November’s summit is only just beginning.

Indonesia, hosting the G-20 presidency for the first time this year, will no doubt have hoped for a status-enhancing mandate. It could not have turned out more differently. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues to threaten Europe and put global food supplies at risk, and Moscow is still actively sowing divisions among emerging nations. Then there’s the rising tensions between the US and China over Taiwan and much else. The world is on edge.

For now, the global plan — and Indonesia’s — appears to be to keep the show on the road and the G-20 together. That’s important, given the deep differences that have opened up between mostly wealthy allied governments backing Ukraine and the Global South, and the scant opportunities for engagement. There is symbolism in coming together, and Indonesia has already circumvented the vexed question of Putin’s presence by inviting Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who will likely join remotely, to attend. Bilateral conversations, like the potential head-to-head between Xi and Biden, can be consequential.

Whatever happens, though, simply avoiding the worst is a worryingly low bar.

There’s certainly no real prospect that the Russian war, the single biggest issue overshadowing the global agenda, will be resolved in Bali, even if plenty can happen between now and November. It’s also true that the G-20 needs to get through a crisis that threatens to definitively split its members between those aligned with international sanctions and efforts to isolate Russia over Ukraine, and the rest. But all involved can do better.

Indonesia, for one. Jokowi’s state of the nation address this week described a country that has reached “the pinnacle of global leadership,” which can act as a “bridge of peace” between Ukraine and Russia. He must follow through on these laudable diplomatic ambitions, and make far more of historic political and military ties to Russia and economic connections with Ukraine. Jokowi’s trip to Kyiv and Moscow earlier this summer was an important step — he was the first Asian leader to visit both since the conflict began — but where did it lead? Indonesia is a significant grain and fuel importer. Putin, apparently, made broad promises around security guarantees for food and fertilizer supplies. Why, then, after June’s shuttle diplomacy does Jakarta appear to have played no significant role in brokering a grain deal to facilitate Ukrainian exports?

The US, for its part, can encourage Indonesia to act on its intentions, and really hold the middle ground. Indonesia was a founder of the Non-Aligned Movement during the Cold War. Today, that position should involve speaking up against a war that violates Jakarta’s foreign policy, and pointing out that Moscow talks up food security on the one hand and bombs grain silos with the other. It struck the port of Odesa a day after the grain deal was reached. Doing otherwise is to support the Kremlin’s narrative.

To have the credibility to make those demands, Washington must develop a far more proactive and holistic policy towards Indonesia, Southeast Asia and the emerging world in general. It is not enough to say, as Antony Blinken did last week in South Africa, that choices will not be dictated, meaning countries will not be made to choose sides between China and the US. An alternative, coherent vision is required — and not simply in opposition to Beijing.

Finally, there are areas where all G-20 nations can and should make progress, including climate, which is on the global agenda in November as the United Nations conference gathers in Egypt. Last year, the G-20 fell short. Drought is hurting industries and agriculture from Sichuan to Texas, and the global energy system is creaking. Talking up democracy is laudable, but there would be few better ways to demonstrate the commitment of the rich world to the rest than by finally paying up to ensure everyone can fight global warming, and adapt to it.