Shadow of hot and cold wars

Published November 21, 2022
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.

FEW G20 summits have taken place in the shadow of a hot and cold war. The conflict in Ukraine and US-China tensions both cast a shadow over the annual meeting of the Group of 20 countries in Bali. President Vladimir Putin didn’t attend the summit, where Russia’s aggression against Ukraine loomed large on the agenda.

Geopolitical tensions unleashed by the conflict as well as its far-reaching fallout on the global economy, including disruption of supply chains and soaring energy and food prices, were top concerns at the summit. Geopolitics dominated the gathering of the world’s largest economies.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed the summit by video, making an emphatic call for Russia to withdraw its troops and end the war, but rejecting peace proposals that would erode his country’s “sovereignty, territory and independence”.

The joint statement issued at the close of the summit declared that “today’s era must not be of war” and that the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons was “inadmissible” — a reference to Putin’s threat to resort to the nuclear option if the Ukraine crisis escalated. The statement sent an important message to Moscow.

But it was the meeting between President Jo Biden and President Xi Jinping on the eve of the summit that was more consequential for international stability, as it indicated a deceleration of tensions between the two global powers. The opening statements by both leaders set a positive tone in their first face-to-face meeting since Biden assumed the presidency. Both pledged to improve relations, which had sunk to a historic low in recent years, raising concerns across the world about the advent of a new Cold War.

Xi told Biden that the world is at an inflection point, which obliged their countries to chart the right course for the relationship and “elevate” it. The present state of China-US relations, he asserted, was not in the fundamental interests of the two countries and needed to be on a ‘healthy and stable track”. Biden said it was “critical” for the two to work together on urgent and global issues.

He later told a press conference that he was not looking for a conflict and that US-China competition had to be managed “responsibly” to avoid a new Cold War.

Read more: Kamala Harris meets Xi briefly, calls for US-China communication

Both leaders came to this meeting strengthened in their respective positions — Xi after securing an unprecedented third term in power, and Biden after an unexpectedly strong electoral performance by the Democratic Party, which retained control of the Senate in midterm Congressional elections. Both leaders have known each other long before they reached the helm of their respective country.

That personal factor may have contributed to good atmospherics for the meeting. One outcome of their three-hour-long parleys was agreement to increase communication between their countries and “empower key senior officials” to engage on global issues such as food security and climate change.

The Biden-Xi meeting on the summit sidelines marked a serious effort to stabilise their turbulent relations.

This did not, of course, mean their differences narrowed over the contentious issues and disputes that divide them — Taiwan, trade disputes, technology curbs and military postures. Indeed, both sides once again spelt out their respective red lines on Taiwan. Although Biden reiterated the US commitment to a One China policy, he sounded a warning over what he described as China’s coercive posture on Taiwan, which he claimed posed a threat to stability in the region.

President Xi, for his part, welcomed Biden’s assurance that Washington did not support Taiwanese independence, but made it clear that Taiwan was a core interest for China and “the first red line” which “must not be crossed in China-US relations”. Before their meeting, a spokesman of the Chinese foreign ministry, in a tough statement, called on the US to “stop fudging, distorting and hollowing out the One China principle [and] strictly abide by the basic norms of international relations”.

Editorial: Xi-Biden summit

For Asia-Pacific countries, as indeed for much of the world, the tentative bid to stabilise US-China relations was a welcome development as few, if any, of them want be caught in the cross hairs of a dangerous confrontation.

A top American official acknowledged the risk of unmanaged competition descending into conflict was of concern to US allies and partners in the region. For a global economy in turmoil and struggling with record inflation, an easing of US-China tensions is necessary to counter the blows from the Ukraine conflict and the trade/tech war between the two superpowers.

The host of the summit, Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo, stated clearly that “G20 must be the catalyst for inclusive economic recovery … [and] not divide the world into parts. We must not allow the world to fall into another Cold War”. He urged concrete action and collaborationto heal the ailing global economy at a summit whosetheme was ‘Recover together, recover stronger’.

The declaration issued by G20 leaders said the world economy was facing “unparalleled multidimensional crises”, and called for steps to curb inflation, protect the vulnerable, calibrate monetary tightening and avoid high currency volatility. But no plan for global recovery was agreed because the economic interests of its members are so varied.

In fact, differences among G20 nations, especially on the war in Ukraine, were laid bare in the leaders’ statement issued after the summit. Recognising that the G20 is “not the forum to resolve security issues”, the 17-page document acknowledged that “there were other views and different assessments of the [Ukraine] situation and sanctions” even as “most members strongly condemned the war in Ukraine”.

Nevertheless, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine was denounced in the “strongest of terms”, which it said was damaging the global economy, especially by fuelling inflation and exacerbating energy and food shortages across the world.

While many Western commentators saw the most important outcome of the G20 summit to be Putin’s increasing international isolation, the global gathering may well be remembered more for the Biden-Xi meeting on the sidelines, which opened an opportunity to improve US-China relations and move the two global powers toward ‘responsible competition’.

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.

Published in Dawn, November 21st, 2022

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