Last Friday, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese jetted off for a marathon of international summits, the most significant of which will be the G20, held in Bali.
Forged during the 2008 Global Financial Crisis (GFC) – allegedly on Kevin Rudd’s own initiative – the G20 brings together 20 of the world’s largest economies, styling itself as the premier forum for international economic cooperation.
While attention focuses on the annual leaders’ summit, much of the G20’s work happens quietly behind the scenes, with economic ministers and officials meeting throughout the year under a rotating presidency to address global economic challenges.
Yet, this is probably not why you’ve heard of the G20 recently. Rather, the focus has been on Vladimir Putin. Since Russia invaded Ukraine, Western leaders have made it clear they would not accept sitting in the same room as Putin. Yet, the host, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, has rejected calls to disinvite Russia, offering a compromise by also inviting Volodymyr Zelensky, even though Ukraine is not part of the G20.
Jokowi’s stance stems partially from the nature of the G20 – it’s not a “by invitation” organisation – and partially to do with Indonesia. The country has a proud history of geopolitical non-alignment, and its position is actually closer to the rest of the Global South. While critical of the war, developing countries don’t see it in such existential terms as the West, and have called for a negotiated solution that would involve compromises on both sides.
Nevertheless, the fiasco over Putin has frustrated the Indonesians, who saw it as ruining their big moment on the international stage. In the end, Putin solved the problem by deciding to stay home, sending his Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov instead. Nevertheless, Lavrov is likely to get an icy reception. Last time he met with his G20 counterparts, he walked out after facing criticism over the war.
Can the G20 can actually make progress on its policy agenda?
There’s plenty to deal with. The pandemic has wrecked the global economy – crippling supply chains, slowing global trade and leaving numerous developing countries on the verge of bankruptcy.
More recently, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has created a global energy crisis and runaway inflation, prompting central banks to drastically raise interest rates. This, however, has only increased global financial volatility, as investors flood to the US bond market, triggering an arms race over rates.
All this is adding up to what the International Monetary Fund is predicting will be a bad 2023 for the global economy, with around one third of countries likely to enter recession, including, potentially, Australia.
Yet, the G20 is unlikely to make much progress on these issues. The summit comes at a time of deep divisions between the world’s powers, not only over Russia-Ukraine, but also between the US and China, the US and its Middle Eastern allies, and within the EU following the surge of populist parties in places such as Italy.
In this context, there’s little consensus on how to address these problems. It seems the best the G20 can hope for is to try to stabilise these tensions by offering world leaders a chance to meet and talk face to face.
The main event will be the meeting between US President Joe Biden and China’s Xi Jinping, their first as leaders. Again, there’s plenty to discuss: China’s sabre rattling over Taiwan, the human rights abuses in Xinjiang, the continuing tariffs on China’s exports imposed by Donald Trump, and Biden’s more recent efforts to effectively kill off China’s computer chip industry.
Don’t expect much progress on these thorny issues, which are at the core of a fledgling Cold War between the two superpowers. But at the very least, the aim will be to take the tensions down a notch or two, and see if cooperation is still possible in areas of mutual interest, like climate change.
Thawing the relationship with China
Australia is also aiming for its own rapprochement with China. Albanese confirmed he’ll be meeting with Xi on Tuesday afternoon, the first such meeting since 2017. The new Labor government has worked behind the scenes to thaw the relationship put in the diplomatic freezer under the Coalition, following spats over foreign interference and the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.
China has its own sources of discontent, not least the AUKUS pact, and the recently announced expansion of the military facilities in Darwin to make them capable of hosting US B52 bombers. The two sides are also locked in an escalating competition over influence in the Pacific, with Solomon Islands as the biggest flashpoint.
Again, it’s unlikely these issues will be resolved in Bali, given the two countries are at opposite sides of the Cold War standoff. Still, it’s good to talk; the last six years have shown how the lack of regular dialogue leads to escalating tensions.
It seems that in a world of fragmenting power blocs, rising tensions and deepening economic crisis, creating a platform for the biggest players to talk is the best the G20 can do.