The G20 meeting in Bali signalled Xi Jinping’s emergence from three years of self-imposed pandemic isolation, with the French president, Emmanuel Macron, and Australian prime minister, Anthony Albanese, among those keen to secure a chat and photo opportunity with the Chinese leader.
Despite condemnation of Chinese human rights abuses and anxiety over its intentions in the Taiwan Strait, the largely positive tone set by Xi’s bilateral with US president Joe Biden continued until the end of the summit.
But they were also opportunities for Xi’s counterparts to communicate their grievances in person. Albanese, the first Australian prime minister to meet Xi since 2016, described their meeting as “positive and constructive”, but had raised the detention of the Australian citizens Cheng Lei and Yang Hengjun, as well as human rights abuses against the Uyghur population in Xinjiang.
Macron, meanwhile, asked Xi to persuade Putin to negotiate an end to the war in Ukraine, and reportedly said he would like to visit China next year, Covid-19 restrictions permitting.
Xi and Japan’s prime minister, Fumio Kishida, were due to hold their first face-to-face talks on Thursday.
The summit was dominated by geopolitics, to the irritation of its Indonesian hosts, who had wanted the focus to be on food and energy security and the climate crisis.
Much of the opening day’s business was drowned out by analysis of the Biden-Xi meeting 24 hours earlier. On Wednesday, the G20 quickly became an ad hoc meeting of the G7, as leaders huddled to discuss their response to news that a Russian-made missile had landed in Poland, killing two people near the country’s border with Ukraine.
The Bali joint statement issued on Wednesday did not go beyond non-committal platitudes. On the climate emergency, G20 leaders simply said they had resolved to “pursue efforts to limit the rise in global temperatures to 1.5C”, including speeding up efforts to “phase down” the unabated use of coal.
In contrast to Xi, the Bali meeting further isolated Vladimir Putin, who sent his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, to act as a diplomatic punchbag after several days of dramatic developments in Ukraine, including Russia’s withdrawal from Kherson.
World leaders did not take part in the usual official “family photo” because of widespread discomfort at Russia’s presence at the summit. Lavrov stayed in his seat while Volodymyr Zelenskiy pointedly referred to the “G19” – the G20 minus Russia – in a video address. Lavrov left Bali on Tuesday evening before the summit’s conclusion.
Even Russia’s traditional allies, India and China, appeared to distance themselves from the Kremlin, while Wednesday’s declaration condemned Russia’s aggression in Ukraine “in the strongest terms” and demanded its unconditional withdrawal.
“Most members strongly condemned the war in Ukraine,” the declaration said, signalling that Russia, which is a member of G20, opposed the wording. The positions taken by China and India were not immediately clear.
The most highly anticipated bilateral came before the summit had even got under way. Biden’s first meeting as president with Xi indicated that the “reset” in relations between the two superpowers trailed by White House officials had begun.
Biden went some way towards soothing regional nerves by declaring that he had no reason to believe a Chinese invasion of Taiwan was “imminent,” but did not shy away from condemning Beijing’s provocative military manoeuvres around the island this summer. However, he placated Xi with assurances that Washington had not departed from its “one China” policy.
The official Chinese account described the talks as “thoroughgoing, frank and constructive”, adding that officials from both governments would build on areas of consensus – a step forward compared with the rancour of recent months.
Rishi Sunak’s predecessor had admittedly set the bar very low, but his diplomatic debut was a modest success. Despite looming crises at home – over allegations of bullying by Dominic Raab and Gavin Williamson, disquiet over Jeremy Hunt’s austerity-heavy autumn statement, and criticism of his government’s handling of migrant and refugee Channel crossings – Sunak just about passed his first major foreign policy test.
His strongly worded condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – and the stare he directed at Lavrov – will have gone down well in Kyiv.
Sunak’s planned meeting with Xi was called off because of time constraints, but his eagerness to meet the Chinese leader was interpreted as a departure from Truss’s hardline approach to Beijing, and was in keeping with the summit’s less confrontational tone towards the world’s second-biggest economy.