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G20 diplomats face unity headwinds on Ukraine, war’s impact

Top diplomats from the world’s richest and largest developing nations are confronting multiple crises as they open talks beset by sharp divisions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its impacts on food and energy security, along with climate change, endemic poverty and the lingering effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

Foreign ministers from the Group of 20 countries begin meeting on the Indonesian resort island of Bali on Friday with little prospect for achieving the kind of lofty consensuses on weighty issues that have been a hallmark of past gatherings. And, as they attempt to prepare for a G-20 leaders’ summit to be held at the same venue in November, they got a last-minute jolt with Thursday’s resignation of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, one of the champions of the West’s hard line on Russia.

While Johnson’s departure is unlikely to dent U.S. and European efforts to promote a tough line on Russia among other G-20 members, it will almost certainly be seen as a sign of weakness by China and Russia, both of which will be represented by their foreign ministers in Bali, Wang Yi and Sergey Lavrov.

They will face off against U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his French and German counterparts who had expected to be joined by British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss. She instead left early to return to London to deal with the fallout from Johnson’s resignation.

U.S. officials say they are determined not to allow distractions to divert attention from what they believe should be the primary focuses of the Bali conference: the disruption to world food and energy supplies caused by Russia’s war in Ukraine, blaming Moscow for its cause, and marshalling an international response to prevent further shortages that are already wreaking havoc in Africa, Asia and elsewhere.

Yet, with East and West so divided and North-South differences emerging, the potential for a G-20 agreement on a way forward appears negligible. U.S. officials have said it is less important for the G-20 as a group to present a unified stance than it is for smaller blocs of countries and individual nations to speak out and take action. In the past, however, the G-20 has produced joint communiques on key issues like terrorism, transnational crime, climate and economic matters that have been lauded as important international policy blueprints.

Thus, competition for such support among the group has been fierce. Wang and Lavrov each stopped in various Asian capitals on their way to Bali, drumming up support for various Chinese and Russian positions and fortifying their ties among non-allied nations in the region ahead of the G-20. Blinken, the French, Germans and Brits, meanwhile, all arrived in Bali from two Western-oriented and organized gatherings in Europe last week: the G-7 and NATO summits at which there was little sign of rancor or debate and unity on Ukraine was assured.

With its broader membership, including countries like host Indonesia and large developing nations like India, Brazil, South Africa and others, the G-20 is far more diverse, skeptical of Western intentions and more open to entreaties and offers from big neighbors like China and Russia and more vulnerable to their threats. Others attending include: Argentina, Australia, Canada, Italy, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Turkey, and the European Union.

Attempting to ply a middle route, this year’s G-20 president, Indonesia, has tried to bridge what gaps are possible, laying out an agenda that is not inherently divisive or political. The country has sought to remain neutral in dealing with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and President Joko Widodo has been guarded in his comments.

Widodo was the first Asian leader to visit the warring countries and at Western insistence has invited Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to the November summit along with Putin, hoping to appease all sides and limit any distractions from the forum’s agenda. It remains unclear if either will attend, although the topic will certainly be discussed at the foreign ministers meeting.

But as is often the case, the largest participants will control the message and China, Russia and the U.S. are battling for supremacy. While Blinken will not meet with Lavrov and has not seen his Russian counterpart since before the Ukraine war, he will meet on Saturday with Wang, the Chinese foreign minister.

The U.S. and China are at severe and worsening odds over numerous issues ranging from tariffs and trade and human rights to Taiwan and disputes in the South China Sea. U.S. officials said they did not expect Saturday’s meeting to produce any breakthroughs on these issues but expressed hope that if would help keep lines of communications open and create “guardrails” to guide the world’s two largest economies as they navigate increasingly complex and potentially explosive matters.

On Wednesday, though, China launched a scathing attack on the U.S. and NATO, just days before the meeting, with the Chinese foreign ministry declaring that Washington “observes international rules only as it sees fit.” Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said the “so-called rules-based international order is actually a family rule made by a handful of countries to serve the U.S. self-interest.”

While Blinken meets with Wang, his Indian, Indonesian and Argentine counterparts in Bali, Lavrov also has full agenda. The top Russian diplomat met with Wang on Thursday and has scheduled talks with the foreign ministers from Mexico, South Africa and Brazil among others.

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