July 20, 2024

Moon Desk: Xi Jinping and Joe Biden will hold talks at next week’s G20 summit in Bali, their first face-to-face meeting since the US president took office and just weeks after the Chinese leader secured a landmark third term.

The leaders of the world’s two biggest economies have spoken by phone multiple times since Biden became president in January 2021. But the Covid-19 pandemic and Xi’s subsequent aversion to foreign travel have prevented them from meeting in person.

Beijing’s foreign ministry said Friday that China would always “firmly defend” its interests in talks with the United States, while working to “manage differences, promote mutually beneficial cooperation and avoid miscalculation”.

The White House had said a day earlier the meeting would go ahead, and that the leaders were set to discuss “efforts to maintain and deepen lines of communication”, as well as how to “responsibly manage competition and work together where our interests align”.

Both powers have challenged each other’s military and diplomatic influence — especially in the Asia-Pacific region.

They have been at odds over an array of issues, including trade, human rights in China’s Xinjiang region, and the status of the self-ruled island of Taiwan.

UN chief Antonio Guterres warned Friday of “a growing risk that the global economy will be divided into two parts, led by the two biggest economies — the United States and China”.

“A divided global economy, with two different sets of rules, two dominant currencies, two internets, and two conflicting strategies on artificial intelligence, would undermine the world’s capacity to respond to the dramatic challenges we face,” Guterres said at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations leaders’ meeting.

“This decoupling must be avoided at all costs.”

– ‘Inevitable’ triumph –

At last month’s Communist Party Congress, Xi warned of a challenging geopolitical climate without mentioning the United States by name, as he wove a narrative of China’s “inevitable” triumph over adversity.

The G20 summit will serve as a diplomatic re-emergence for Xi following his anointment in October as China’s leader for a third term.

In Indonesia’s Bali, he is also set to meet French President Emmanuel Macron less than a fortnight after hosting German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Beijing.

Biden, in turn, is headed into the trip to Southeast Asia “with the wind at his back”, White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said Thursday, with “an excellent opportunity both to deal with competitors from a strong position and to rally allies”.

US midterm elections this week brought surprisingly strong results for Biden’s party — limiting losses in the House, potentially holding the Senate, and chastening former president Donald Trump’s far-right wing.

Notably absent from the summit will be Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has been shunned by the West over his invasion of Ukraine, and who is instead sending Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

A trip to the summit in Bali would have put Putin in the same room as Biden for the first time since the Ukraine war began on February 24.

Biden has fiercely criticised Putin and had ruled out meeting him in Bali if he went, unless they discussed the release of Americans held in Russia.

Putin’s spokesperson said Friday the president would not go to the G20 summit because of scheduling commitments.

Observers say the Kremlin is seeking to shield the 70-year-old leader from Western condemnation over the Ukraine war, in which Russian forces are suffering setbacks against a counter-offensive.

Political analyst Konstantin Kalachev said Putin did not want to step out of his comfort zone and face tough questions.

Putin’s refusal to attend the summit in person also suggests he does not have any firm proposal to end the offensive in Ukraine.

“There is a sense of a dead end, and without concrete proposals Putin simply has nothing to do at this summit,” Kalachev told AFP.

– Diplomatic tightrope –

Host Indonesia pursues a neutral foreign policy and had rebuffed Western calls to disinvite Russia.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo had invited Putin despite the Ukraine assault, prompting a flurry of Western criticism. In August, he said Putin had accepted that invitation.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is expected to attend virtually. He had threatened to boycott the summit if Putin attended.

The G20 summit will be the bloc’s biggest meeting since the start of the pandemic.

It will be held under the shadow of divisions over the food and energy crises worsened by the Ukraine conflict, on top of soaring inflation and climate change.

G20 meetings held ahead of the leaders’ get-together all ended without a joint communique.

The summit is also not expected to close with a joint declaration, but the Indonesian foreign ministry said “the negotiation for the final document is still ongoing”.

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