Russia’s isolation at G20 summit over Ukraine puts China and India under spotlight
Russia’s international isolation grew Wednesday, as world leaders sought to gain unanimous support in condemning its war in Ukraine that has killed thousands of people and roiled the global economy.
At the Group of 20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, scrutiny fell on China and India as Western countries pushed for a strong denunciation of the war in a closing statement that was due just hours after Poland said a “Russian-made missile” had landed in a village near its border with Ukraine, killing two people.
It remains unclear who fired that missile. Both Russian and Ukrainian forces have used Russian-made munitions during the conflict, with Ukraine deploying Russian-made missiles as part of their air defense system. But whatever the outcome of the investigation into the deadly strike, the incident underscored the dangers of miscalculation in a brutal war that has stretched on for nearly nine months, and which risks escalating further and dragging major powers into it.
Waking up to the news, US President Biden and leaders from the G7 and NATO convened an emergency meeting in Bali to discuss the explosion. The incident now raises the stakes in an effort by the US and its allies to end the G20 summit with a joint communique denouncing Russia’s war.
The passing of the communique would require the buy-in from leaders that share close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin and have until now seemed reluctant to outwardly criticize his invasion – most notably Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who declared a “no-limits” friendship between their countries weeks before the invasion, and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
With the summit set to draw to a close on Wednesday afternoon, all eyes are on what the final declaration will look like, and which countries will sign it.
While India is seen to have distanced itself from Russia, whether there has been any shift of position from China is less clear. Chinese leader Xi Jinping has called for a ceasefire and agreed to oppose the use of nuclear weapons in a flurry of bilateral meetings with Western leaders on the sidelines of the G20, but he has given no public indication of any commitment to persuade his “close friend” Vladimir Putin to end the war.
What’s certain is Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will not be there to see it – he left Bali on Tuesday night, according to Russian state-owned news agency TASS.
A draft of the statement, which is still subject to changes, “deplores in the strongest terms the aggression by the Russian Federation against Ukraine and demands its complete and unconditional withdrawal from the territory of Ukraine.”
But it also acknowledges the rift among member states. “Most members strongly condemned the war in Ukraine and stressed it is causing immense human suffering and exacerbating existing fragilities in the global economy,” it said. “There were other views and different assessments of the situation and sanctions.”
It is apparent where the diverging views and assessments are coming from. Since Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine in February, Beijing has refused to label the military aggression as an “invasion” or “war,” and has amplified Russian propaganda blaming the conflict on NATO and the US while decrying sanctions.
When discussing Ukraine with leaders from the US, France and other nations, Xi invariably stuck to terms such as “the Ukraine crisis” or “the Ukraine issue” and avoided the word “war,” according to Chinese readouts.
In those meetings, Xi reiterated China’s call for ceasefire through dialogue, and, according to readouts from his interlocutors, agreed to oppose the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine – but those remarks are not included in China’s account of the talks.
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi later told Chinese state media that Xi had reiterated China’s position that “nuclear weapons cannot be used and a nuclear war cannot be fought” in his meeting with Biden.
In a meeting with his Russian counterpart Lavrov Tuesday, Wang praised Russia for holding the same position. “China noticed that Russia has recently reaffirmed the established position that ‘a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,’ which shows Russia’s rational and responsible attitude,” Wang was quoted as saying by state news agency Xinhua.
Wang is one of the few – if not only – foreign officials to have sat down for a formal meeting with Lavrov, who has faced isolation and condemnation at a summit where he stood in for Putin.
On Tuesday, Lavrov sat through the opening of the summit listening to world leaders condemn Russia’s brutal invasion. Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who is hosting the G20 summit, told world leaders “we must end the war.” “If the war does not end, it will be difficult for the world to move forward,” he said.
Xi, meanwhile, made no mention of Ukraine in his opening remarks. Instead, the Chinese leader made a thinly veiled criticism of the US – without mentioning it by name – for “drawing ideological lines” and “promoting group politics and bloc confrontation.”
Compared with the ambiguous stance of China, observers have noted a more obvious shift from India – and the greater role Delhi is willing to play in engaging all sides.
On Tuesday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for leaders to “find a way to return to the path of ceasefire and diplomacy in Ukraine” in his opening remarks at the summit.
The draft of the joint declaration also includes a sentence: “Today’s era must not be of war.” The language echos what Modi told Putin in September, on the sidelines of a regional summit in Uzbekistan.
“If the Indian language was used in the text, that means Western leaders are listening to India as a major stakeholder in the region, because India is a country that is close to both the West and Russia,” said Happymon Jacob, associate professor of diplomacy and disarmament at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.
“And we are seeing India disassociating itself from Russia in many ways.”