Ideas for a brighter future for all

Don’t mention the war

The 2022 Asian Summits

It was meant to be Southeast Asia’s time in the sun this summit season but events have transpired to rain on the parade of this fast-rising region.

Cambodia hosted the ASEAN and Related Summits, on 11-13 November, Indonesia is currently hosting the G20 Summit in Bali on 15-16 November, and then Thailand will host the APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting on 18-19 November 2022.

The South-East Asian hosts of three major November Leaders Summits took the unprecedented step of issuing a joint press release back in May 2022, extolling the importance of the processes and urging cooperation. Why?  Because things were looking bleak as several nations threatened a boycott of the summits due to the Russian invasion of the Ukraine. conflict was threatening the carefully prepared agendas and tradecraft of the host nations.

It was meant to be Southeast Asia’s time to lead in a Western dominated global governance landscape whilst the region faced serious challenges of its own with conflict in Myanmar, tension in the South China Sea and economic collapse in Sri Lanka. The press release concludes:

"As Chairs of these important meetings this year, we are determined to work with all our partners and stakeholders to ensure a spirit of cooperation, as we in Southeast Asia continue to strengthen ASEAN centrality, credibility and relevance in maintaining peace and stability in our regional and global endeavours."

What is not mentioned but has clearly precipitated this press release is Russia, and how Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine has disrupted the preparatory meetings leading to the summits.  Every headline has been about whether Putin should come to South-East Asia, instead of progress on the agenda for each summit, which the chairs carefully reiterate in their press release. 

On paper at least, Russia was all set to participate in this year’s G20, APEC, and ‘ASEAN-plus’ summits in Asia at the leader level–but in the end Putin chose not to come. The disagreements over the terms of Russia’s participation or non-participation in Asia Pacific summitry in 2022 are revealing in the way they have played out in the region under pressure from the West.

In the end, will this summit season will be viewed as displaying Southeast Asia’s centrality, credibility and relevance? 

Most leaders have at least attended the summits.

President Widodo noted to G20 leaders that it took “extraordinary efforts” to get everyone together in the same room.  At the last minute, Russian President Vladmir Putin finally confirmed he would not be attending any of the summits and Sergey Lavrov the Foreign Minister would be attending in his stead. The Ukraine Foreign Minister attended the East Asia Summit and President Zelensky appeared by video to address G20 leaders (pointedly calling the meeting the ‘G19’ as Lavrov walked out). Western leaders may still walk out of the meeting when Russia address the group tomorrow, and the Leaders Declaration will face a difficult negotiation to be released.

The Bear in the room

Indonesia’s president Joko Widodo asked G20 to respect international laws and avert a ‘cold war’. Whilst never mentioning Ukraine and Russia by name. Widodo called the war to end and for leaders to be “responsible” and refrain from creating “zero-sum situations”. He said:

"We should not divide the world into parts. We must not let the world fall into another cold war."

Asian regional institutions are expected to rise to global leadership roles and importance, matching their economic and strategic weight. Should Russia’s attendance have had such an impact on the ability of these multilateral and regional forums to respond to pre-existing economic and security challenges with authority and legitimacy? Myanmar is under a coup, Sri Lanka is facing an economic crisis, the region has its own issues dealing with climate impacts and the ongoing tail of the pandemic. Or does it mean that Europe and the USA’s domination of global affairs will take centre stage for much longer than predicted, even when it was meant to be Asia’s turn to lead the dance? And if Asian countries refuse to draw lines on human rights abuses or territorial invasion, what signals will that send to their citizens, or the citizens of Myanmar? Or China?

As the year has progressed, the region has turned back its gaze to the giant panda in the room after the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in October asserted a more dominant China.  The major headline from the G20 is likely to be President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping holding their first in-person meeting at the G20 on Monday, including a handshake.

Vladimir Putin
Summit Season: The Putin Dilemma

The Putin Dilemma seemed likely to affect the G20 the most. APEC is a unique forum of economies, rather than states. ASEAN’s core membership is South-East Asian nations with Russia as a dialogue partner, albeit an important one. ASEAN countries are not as directly affected thus far by the conflict in Ukraine and lagged behind other UN members in voting against Russia in the UN General Assembly with few following the West in imposing sanctions. Indonesia has not imposed any sanctions on Russia but did vote against Russia in the UN General Assembly and Security Council votes. Notably Indonesia abstained in the crucial last vote on April 7 on whether to exclude Russia from the UN Human Rights Council.

But the G20 is the leading global economic forum with Russia as a key member. The G7 suspended Russia from the G8 due to its invasion of Crimea in 2014 and then Russia chose to walk away from it in 2017. But the G20 is a different proposition due to the wider membership, including the other members of the BRICS with Russia, China, India, Brazil and South Africa.  The G20 has no secretariat so the current host works in a troika with the previous and future hosts, in this case Italy and India. It may not be in the host’s gift to disinvite a current invitee, there is no precedent for such a move and it did not occur in the G20 when Russia was kicked out of the G8. Presumably, it may require a unanimous vote of the full membership other than Russia.  But it is clear that the host is allowed to invite a selection of guests, which allowed President Widodo to invite the Ukrainian President Zelensky to Bali.

The theme of Indonesia’s G20 Presidency is Recover together, recover stronger, with the three pillars of Global Health Architecture, Sustainable Energy Transition, and Digital Transformation. Indonesia expected to showcase their leadership on ensuring equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines, and promoting sustainable and inclusive economic development through MSMEs participation and reforms to the digital economy. Instead, G20 headlines all year have focused on walkouts from Finance Ministers meetings and pressure on President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo to disinvite Putin.

The hosts have had no choice, but that might turn in Indonesia’s favour. Indonesian academics Killian and Azis note that this move could underline Indonesia’s experience as a regional facilitator and mediator in Southeast Asian conflicts and can use this expertise to mediate the group’s polarisation.

Is a walkout on the cards?

The question for the G20 Summit is now not about Putin’s attendance, but whether the Summit can be successful at all due to the disruptions this year. The Indonesian Finance Minister had to admit after the G20 Finance Ministers meeting in April in Washington DC led to a walkout with Janet Yellen and others, that “It’s not business as usual, a very dynamic and challenging one.” The Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors failed to agree a communique, a unique event, and one which does not bode well for the Leaders Summit. Germany had to use all of its power to get former US President Trump over the line at the Hamburg Summit to release a Leaders Declaration. This time the task is far more difficult for Indonesia and it has less experience as a host, although this is Jokowi’s eighth time attending the G20 summit as a leader.

Already much of the advantage of leading the G20 Presidency in terms of clear air for Indonesia’s soft and hard power to shine has been lost. Former Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa had stated this was a time for leadership and the global need for a ‘third voice’, pressuring Widodo to look beyond a domestic re-election agenda and a trade/tourism focus.

Global governance has red lines and Russia has crossed them.  Southeast Asian leaders stepping into global leadership need to recognise the bigger stage and the signals they send to the region and others. At the same time – Southeast Asia also deserves its moment to lead.

Author

 

Professor Susan Harris RimmerProfessor Susan Harris Rimmer is the Director of the Griffith University Policy Innovation Hub. She was previously the Deputy Head of School (Research) in the Griffith Law School and prior to joining Griffith was the Director of Studies at the ANU Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy.

With Professor Sara Davies, Susan is co-convenor of the Griffith Gender Equality Research Network. Sue also leads the Climate Justice theme of the new Griffith Climate Action Beacon.

Susan is the 2021 winner of the Fulbright Scholarship in Australian-United States Alliance Studies and will be hosted by Georgetown University in Washington DC.

Follow Sue on Twitter

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