India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi (C) along with world leaders attends the closing session of the G20 Leaders’ Summit on September 10, 2023. Photo: AFP
by SCMP Editorial
by SCMP Editorial

G20 an opportunity to mend bilateral ties in a difficult world

  • Leaders of China and Russia may have been missing from latest get-together, but it still showed nations could put differences aside in an attempt to resolve problems and crises

The Group of 20 major economies may no longer be the unified force that first came together to deal with the 2008 global financial crisis. Geopolitical tensions have taken their toll. The absence from the most recent G20 summit last weekend of the leaders of China and Russia reflects that. It is therefore good to report that there is still life in the multilateral platform for resolving problems and crises.

Evidence of that was to be found at the summit and on its sidelines. First, the leaders finally reached a difficult consensus on a joint declaration, after officials charged with drafting it had reportedly haggled over the wording since before the summit began.

The communique got around seemingly irreconcilable positions on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It stopped short of a previous G20 condemnation of Russian aggression, highlighted the human suffering caused by the conflict and called on all states not to use force to grab territory. That won the explicit endorsement of spokesmen for both Moscow and Washington. The Ukraine war proved more contentious than the global issues of climate change and the transition to low-carbon energy.

The final wording of the communique showed a collective will to maintain the credibility of one of the most important multilateral platforms – when it can put differences far enough aside.

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Outside the formal summit, meetings on the sidelines – or neutral ground – can enable informal high-level contact. A case in point is a meeting between Premier Li Qiang and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. The highest level bilateral contact since 2018 went ahead despite news that Britain had arrested two men, including a parliamentary researcher, for allegedly spying for China – a claim denied by Beijing. Sunak’s office said he conveyed concerns to Li about interference with Britain’s parliamentary democracy. This comes on top of other irritants such as Hong Kong’s security law, Xinjiang, cybersecurity and Taiwan as well as Ukraine.

Li said that as both nations advocated free trade they should jointly oppose the politicising of economic issues, and promote an open world economy. “The two sides should … uphold the spirit of tolerance [and] respect each other’s core interests and key concerns.”

Trade between the two countries has been falling, by 5.3 per cent year on year in 2022, according to Chinese customs data. In the first eight months of this year it dropped a further 0.6 per cent.

There is ample scope for mending bilateral ties that have suffered in recent years amid the pandemic and geopolitical tensions, and for reversing the trade trend. Given that the latest spy allegation adds to the gap between the two sides, the arrests should not be allowed to get in the way of efforts to close it.