Alex Lo
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Alex Lo
My Take
by Alex Lo

Pessimists disappointed as G20 turns out to be quite a success

  • Western nations have their say over Ukraine war while Global South is in no mood to be ignored on need for social and economic development

The Group of 20 summit has turned out to be more successful than many a pessimist could have imagined. At a time of high international tensions and danger, some observers thought the world leaders would be so divided at the meeting, held under the shadow of the war in Ukraine, that they wouldn’t be able to agree on a joint statement. In the end, one was duly produced and even showed some spirit of compromise.

Perhaps it was precisely escalating conflicts in multiple hotspots around the globe threatening to spiral out of control – and with the threat of a potential, if remote nuclear confrontation – that concentrated minds in Bali.

G20 host Indonesia, along with South Africa and India, played a constructive role in mediating between the West and the South. From the time he flew to Moscow to try to mediate in the Ukraine war to his hosting of the G20, President Joko Widodo has emerged as a world statesman, his moderation, good sense and neutrality enabling his country to punch well above its weight in international affairs.

The Indonesian host and its developing-nation partners had wanted to focus on the food and energy crises as well as the climate threat, which affected the Global South the most. But in the end, the Western nations managed to have it their way by putting Russia’s invasion at the top of the agenda, as reflected in the communique. Even so, both sides compromised, or agreed to disagree. Consider the following wordings.

The joint G20 final communique said in Section 3: “Most members strongly condemned the war in Ukraine and stressed it is causing immense human suffering and exacerbating existing fragilities in the global economy … There were other views and different assessments of the situation and sanctions. Recognising that the G20 is not the forum to resolve security issues, we acknowledge that security issues can have significant consequences for the global economy.”

G20: China and Indonesia to strengthen ‘strategic coordination’ in Southeast Asia

A key message of the Global South nations was broadcast loud and clear. In their new non-alignment, they have no interest in, and will resist being dragged into the great powers’ rivalry. They prefer to focus on their social and economic development, and that the West is welcome with its diplomacy and economic engagement, but not military dominance.

As the soft-spoken Indonesian president forcefully told the world leaders gathered: “We should not divide the world into parts … We must not let the world fall into another cold war.”

However, one thing that everyone agrees on is that there must be no use of nuclear weapons in a conflict. “The use or threat of use of nuclear weapons is inadmissible,” the communique said. “Today’s era must not be of war.” That was a message delivered loud and clear to Vladimir Putin.

The Russian leader sensibly skipped. But at least his substitute Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his Western counterparts managed to stay civil. Lavrov even sat through a virtual address by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to the summit without walking out.

G20: Russia’s Lavrov slams West’s ‘obsession’ with Ukraine war

But if the developing countries couldn’t put the food and energy security crises at the top, they managed to make them the longest sections in the communique to press their concerns, along with economic development and climate change defences.

Meanwhile, President Xi Jinping’s re-emergence after three years of Covid-19-induced isolation has shown one thing, if nothing else. An isolated China, whether by the West or self-imposed, is not in anyone’s interest. Besides his much-anticipated meeting with American President Joe Biden, Xi met other world leaders. Even Australia’s Anthony Albanese and Japan’s Fumio Kishida, members of the strategic security Quad led by Washington, managed to sound conciliatory.

It’s too early to say that international tensions have been lowered, but at least everyone was more willing to tone down their rhetoric in Bali, for now.

It will, hopefully, mark the time when the Global South comes into its own in a multipolar world where the Group of Seven industrialised countries once dictated the global agenda.