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‘A remarkable job’: how Russia and China buckled in the face of a united G20


It took six rounds of talks over 17 days before negotiators from G20 countries could finally relax, just after 7pm on Monday evening.

Tasked with hammering out a joint draft statement that leaders could agree on at a summit in Bali starting the next day, officials had been locked in negotiations from 8am to well after midnight over the weekend.

“It was like all of the pressure suddenly left the room,” said an official from the Indian delegation, as Russia — and China — buckled to allow a qualified condemnation of Moscow’s war against Ukraine.

Billed as the first global summit of the second cold war, western leaders came to Bali under pressure to demonstrate that their opposition to Russian president Vladimir Putin’s war had global resonance. Kremlin rhetoric justifying the invasion and blaming western sanctions for the resulting food and energy crises had convinced much of the global south.

Many worried that developing countries with strong ties to Russia, such as India and Saudi Arabia, would simply reject any language condemning the conflict, meaning the US, EU and their allies would have to settle for weak conclusions or none at all.

But they left Bali with not just a joint statement with clear criticisms of the war’s economic fallout, but also evidence that the developing world’s leading countries were prepared to isolate Russia. It also stoked hope that Beijing was open to moderating its backing for Moscow.

Negotiators, officials and diplomats who spoke to the Financial Times praised Indonesian president Joko Widodo, the summit’s host, and the Indian delegation for tirelessly seeking consensus between Moscow and the western camp. Their success lay in approaching the war in Ukraine from a developing country perspective: its economic impact.

“The Indonesians were smart. They started on something everyone could agree on, which was food security, and then built on that,” said one western delegate.

“Widodo was determined to get that declaration . . . He felt Indonesia’s diplomatic capital was used to the max and he employed every trick in the book,” said a person close to Widodo.

On the eve of the summit, as other leaders were arriving in Bali, Chinese president Xi Jinping and his US counterpart Joe Biden shook hands. Their first face-to-face meeting as leaders followed a dramatic souring of ties over China’s posture towards Taiwan, Beijing’s support for Moscow, its crackdown in Hong Kong and Washington’s growing barrage of trade restrictions.

After three hours, the two leaders signalled a mutual desire to arrest that negative trajectory.

The positive noises from that meeting set the tone for the talks that followed at the G20 proper, officials from multiple delegations told the FT. It gave diplomats the confidence that there was a window for an agreement in the interests of unity, and at the expense of Moscow.

“It was a really remarkable job,” said a second western delegation official. “There was this extra focus on the G20 . . . many had targeted this to build pressure [on Russia]. And we got a deal.”

Putin’s decision to skip the summit spoke to his concern that he would be isolated and snubbed, despite the presence of his four BRICS partners — Brazil, India, China and South Africa. Instead, diplomats said that group, plus Indonesia, turned out to be the crucial swing votes that decided that a joint statement featuring language critical of the war was preferable to no statement at all.

Countries such as Mexico, Argentina and Saudi Arabia were determined not to allow a divide between the G7 and others, people involved in the negotiations said, and while they did not openly attack Russia, they offered no gestures of solidarity either.

“This was the first [G20] summit where developing nations shaped the outcome,” said the Indian official. “G20 is valuable for everyone. For the developed and the developing. So what’s the point of ruining it?”

India’s prime minister Narendra Modi, left, with Indonesian president Joko Widodo at the G20 on Wednesday
India’s prime minister Narendra Modi, left, with Indonesian president Joko Widodo at the G20 on Wednesday © Willy Kurniawan/AP

India, the next rotating annual host of the G20, and Brazil, which will follow India, were particularly adamant that a joint statement would be achieved, fearful of setting a precedent for disunity and failure, according to diplomats.

Despite a late, unsuccessful attempt by China to water down the joint statement’s condemnation of the war, western officials took the Xi-Biden meeting and the overall attitude to the Bali summit as a possible opening to better co-operation as they attempted to peel Beijing away from Moscow.

“I am convinced China can play a greater role of mediator in the coming months to avoid a more intense land war,” French president Emmanuel Macron said. “I was able to discuss this with Xi Jinping, as well as the idea of me visiting Beijing in early 2023 with the goal of intensifying dialogue on this specific point.”

Western diplomats were also buoyed by Xi’s comments that his administration “resolutely opposes attempt[s] to politicise food and energy issues or use them as tools and weapons”. That was seen as a rebuke to Putin’s disruption of Russian energy and Ukrainian agricultural exports.

Two delegates said that China ultimately had been reluctant to be grouped alone alongside Russia, a fear that pushed Beijing to accept the statement.

But it was clear there was still work to be done to bridge deep fissures. In a remarkable example of the mistrust that bedevils ties between western capitals and Beijing, Xi was filmed in a private conversation berating Canada’s prime minister Justin Trudeau over his handling of a previous discussion. “Everything we discussed was leaked . . . that’s not appropriate,” Xi said, shaking his head.

Chinese analysts and government policy advisers said that Xi was trying to strike a difficult balance at the G20 by easing tensions with the US and other western countries without significantly shifting his consistent support for Russia’s invasion. Beijing said the war was triggered by Nato’s eastward expansion over recent decades.

In addition to his meetings with Biden and Macron, Xi held talks with the leaders of US allies Australia, South Korea, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands on the sidelines of the G20, and will meet Japanese prime minister Fumio Kishida after leaving the summit.

“From the standpoint of Xi Jinping’s own interests, it really makes sense for them to think of a stable relationship with the United States as a core interest of China,” said Susan Shirk, a China expert at the University of California in San Diego.

Officials acknowledge that the joint statement contains no concrete steps to end the war in Ukraine or increase pressure on Russia. Moscow’s decision to launch a missile barrage against Ukraine on Tuesday while the G20 leaders were sitting down to a lavish formal dinner made clear Putin was in no mood for concessions.

“I do not overestimate the value of conclusions of G20 summits,” said a senior EU official.

“But think of it this way: imagine what it would look like if we had left here with no agreement. Everyone demonstrated a willingness to engage.”

Additional reporting by Leila Abboud in Paris, Tom Mitchell in Singapore and Demetri Sevastopulo in Washington



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