Has G20 revived the art of face-to-face diplomacy?

Success of in-person meetings evident in joint statement condemning Russia's war on Ukraine

President Joko Widodo and G20 leaders lift hoes after planting mangroves at Ngurah Rai Forest Park, Bali. Reuters
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An inevitable pall of silence descended on the streets of Bali a day after the G20 summit came to an end.

Missing were the scores of buses, electric cars and scooters and black limousines that Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s administration had arranged to ferry more than 13,000 visitors around the island’s Nusa Dua area, a conclave of stylish tourist resorts used to host the high-stakes conference.

“It is back to normal now,” said Ketut, who runs a taxi service in Bali and, like many Indonesians, goes by one name. “The past few months were madness.”

Flights to Bali were running full and on the eve of the summit, some planes had to hover over the Ngurah Rai International airport for more than two hours because of the rush of traffic.

At the airport, arrangements for the G20 were taut — special lines had been created for immigration, customs and Covid-19 checks and volunteers were everywhere to assist summit visitors.

Indeed, Indonesia as host had pulled out all stops in its run-up to the 17th summit, a select group of the world’s most powerful economies that meets annually to discuss challenges, from economic to political, facing the world.

This year's conference was especially significant as it marked a fully fledged return to in-person diplomacy for the world’s movers and shakers, many of whom, including Chinese President Xi Jinping, had skipped the last forum in Rome, preferring to appear by video.

Although the G20 is billed as one for global co-operation, where a joint statement is issued at the conclusion, one-on-one meetings between the world’s most powerful leaders tend to overshadow proceedings.

And they did in abundance at Bali.

The most significant of the bilaterals, in fact, took place on the eve of the conference with US President Joe Biden meeting his Chinese counterpart to discuss a range of issues involving trade, Taiwan and, of course, the fallout of Russia’s war on Ukraine.

Both were coming into the conference with their hands stronger, having scored key domestic victories.

While Mr Xi had recently secured a third term that firmly entrenched him as China’s most powerful recent leader, Mr Biden had been lifted by his party’s results in the US midterms.

The two discussed their mounting rivalry, which has encompassed everything from enhanced nuclear arsenals to trade wars over technology and a naval build-up by both sides in the Pacific.

“The US focus was China,” said Manoj Joshi, a commentator on international politics at New Delhi-based think tank Observer Research Foundation. “Biden and Xi did not really need the G20 to meet, but these meetings are an important arena to meet your counterparts.”

Pictures — President Xi Jinping with world leaders at G20

Indeed for Mr Xi, who was stepping out of China to meet world leaders for the first time since the pandemic, Bali proved to be significant.

It was his first face-to-face meeting not only with Mr Biden, but also with a host of world leaders including Australian PM Anthony Albanese, as well as his French, South Korean, South African and Indonesian counterparts.

Mr Xi also met Canada’s President Justin Trudeau, whom he accused of leaking to the media details of a private meeting between them.

Relations between China and Canada plummeted after the latter detained a Huawei Technologies executive at the request of the US in 2018.

China then arrested Canadian citizens Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor over alleged spying and released them only after the Huawei official was freed last year.

While Mr Trudeau attempted to raise the cause of transparency and free speech, Mr Xi cut him short and walked away with a dismissive handshake.

It was a power gesture from a world leader looking to reaffirm his presence on the global stage and repair world opinion of China that has become fractured since the pandemic.

“The spat was quite unusual,” said Srikanth Kondapalli, dean of the School of International Studies at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University and an expert on China. “It was quite explicitly the Chinese president exerting coercive diplomatic pressure on the Canadian PM. It was wolf-warrior diplomacy.”

Mr Xi, however, warmed to Italian PM Giorgia Meloni, who accepted his invitation to visit China.

He told Ms Meloni he expected Italy to play an important role in encouraging the EU to pursue an "independent and positive" policy towards China.

Mr Xi, who was being seen by the forum as one able to influence Vladimir Putin and steer the course of the war, may visit Russia next year to meet the Russian President, Russian news agency Tass reported.

In a move that surprised many, Mr Xi participated in the joint declaration by the G20 leaders condemning Russia for the war.

“The resolution was a kind of a victory for India,” Mr Kondapalli said. “What Modi told Putin in Samarkand — that this is not the time for — and which was reflected in the resolution, is quite a boost on new multilateralism that India has been advocating. It is good news for India as it starts the presidency of G20."

On the concluding day of the summit, Mr Widodo handed over the baton to Mr Modi, who pledged to take forward the legacy of the summit.

“The good thing about India’s case is whether it is digital, financial, health or any other dimension, India has been practising those and has that credibility,” said Anil Trigunayat, former Indian ambassador to Jordan, Libya and Malta. “That gives India the opportunity for projecting itself as a benign power that stands by principles.

“Russians must be feeling the pressure now after the G20 declaration and they will have to look for some face-saving. Can India provide that?”

China's support of the declaration was attributed to the fact that Mr Xi needed the forum’s support to overcome the challenges facing China, from climate change to the pandemic’s aftermath to its over-leveraged housing and property markets.

The forum was also the first for British PM Rishi Sunak, who engaged with Mr Biden briefly and also with a host of other leaders including Indian PM Narendra Modi.

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks to US President Joe Biden during a bilateral meeting at the G20 summit in Bali. PA

“If you see the White House website, the press release relating to China is extensive and when you look at the readouts with Rishi Sunak, it is kind of two paragraphs and for India, half a paragraph,” said Mr Joshi of the Observer Research Foundation. “That gives you an idea of the geopolitical situation.”

Still, the leaders would have got more time to use the platform to mingle had it not been for an early-morning emergency meeting of G7 and Nato leaders Mr Biden called in his hotel on Wednesday after a missile strike near Poland's border with Ukraine.

By the time the group had decided that the strike may not have come from Russia, those talks had eaten into much of the morning’s crucial diplomacy time.

The expected meeting between Mr Sunak and Mr Xi had to be cancelled because of scheduling issues.

To be sure, the Bali summit had begun with the bar of expectations placed low by political experts.

The joint statement stumped sceptics who had thought that the event concluding without any walkouts would have been a success.

For the residents of Bali, whose lifeline is tourism, the summit is expected to bring back the glory days.

"They have started returning, the Australians, the Chinese," said Yoni, who has run a hotel in the Nusa Dua area for the past 10 years. "During the pandemic, we somehow survived because of some local tourists from Jakarta. Things are looking up now."

A couple walk along the beach in Nusa Dua, Bali. It is hoped the G20 summit will help persuade tourists to return to the island. Reuters

Indonesia's Tourism Minister, Sandiaga Uno, had said before the summit he expected the G20 to boost tourism to Indonesia, especially to Bali.

He expected 1.5 million foreign visitors to Bali and 3.6 million to the country as a whole until the end of the year.

From Bali, some of the leaders, including Mr Xi, jetted off to the Thai capital of Bangkok for the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit.

In-person diplomacy is back.

With additional reporting by Taniya Dutta in New Delhi

Updated: November 18, 2022, 6:00 PM