G20, APEC, ASEAN: World leaders conclude three summits in Asia — with Russia firmly on the sidelines

Bangkok, Thailand

The three major summits of world leaders that have taken place across Asia in the past week have made one thing clear: Vladimir Putin is now sidelined on the world stage.

Putin, whose attack on Ukraine over the past nine months has devastated the European country and roiled the global economy, refused to attend any of the diplomatic meetings – and instead found himself subject to heavy censorship as international opposition to his war appeared to harden.

A meeting of the leaders of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in Bangkok closed on Saturday with a declaration that refers to the positions of nations expressed in other forums, including in a UN resolution that deplores “in the strongest terms” Russian aggression against Ukraine, while noticing. different points of view.

It echoes verbatim a statement from the Group of 20 (G20) leaders’ summit in Bali earlier this week.

“Most members strongly condemned the war in Ukraine and emphasized that it causes enormous human suffering and exacerbates existing fragilities in the global economy,” the document said, adding that there were different “assessments” of the situation within the group.

Discussions within the summits aside, the week also showed Putin – who is believed to have launched his invasion to restore Russia’s supposed former glory – as increasingly isolated, with the Russian leader holed up in Moscow and unwilling to even face counterparts at a major. global meetings.

Fear of possible political maneuvers against him should he leave the capital, an obsession with personal security and a desire to avoid scenes of confrontation at the summits – especially as Russia faces heavy losses on the battlefield – were all likely calculations that entered Putin’s assessment. , according to Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Meanwhile, he may not want to draw unwanted attention to the handful of nations that have remained friendly to Russia, such as India and China, whose leaders Putin saw at a regional summit in Uzbekistan in September.

“He doesn’t want to be this toxic guy,” Gabuev said.

But even among countries that have not taken a hard line against Russia, there are signs of lost patience, if not with Russia itself, than with the knock-on effects of its aggression. Tight energy, food security issues and spiraling global inflation are now putting pressure on economies around the world.

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Indonesia, which hosted the G20, did not explicitly condemn Russia for the invasion, but its President Joko Widodo told world leaders on Tuesday “we must end the war.”

India, which has been a key buyer of Russian energy even as the West has shied away from Russian fuel in recent months, also reiterated its call to “find a way to get back on the path of a ceasefire” at the G20. The summit’s final declaration includes a sentence saying, “Today’s era must not be one of war” — language that echoes what Modi told Putin in September when they met on the sidelines of the summit in Uzbekistan.

It is less clear whether China, whose strategic partnership with Russia is strengthened by a close relationship between leader Xi Jinping and Putin, has come to any change of attitude. Beijing has long refused to condemn the invasion, or even call it such. Instead, it decries Western sanctions and has amplified Kremlin talking points by blaming the US and NATO for the conflict, although this rhetoric has appeared to be somewhat dialed back in its state-controlled domestic media in recent months.

Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelensky addresses G20 leaders via video link from his office in Kyiv.

In side meetings with Western leaders this past week, however, Xi reiterated China’s call for a ceasefire through dialogue, and, according to readings from his interlocutors, agreed to oppose the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine – but those remarks are not included in the Chinese . account of the talks.

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi later told Chinese state media that Xi reiterated China’s position in his bilateral meeting with US President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the G20 that “nuclear weapons cannot be used and nuclear war cannot to be fought.”

But observers of China’s foreign policy say its desire to maintain strong ties with Russia is likely to remain unwavering.

“While these statements are an indirect criticism of Vladimir Putin, I don’t think they are intended to distance China from Russia,” said Brian Hart, a fellow with the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “Xi says these things to an audience that wants to hear them.”

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Russian isolation, however, appears even more severe against the backdrop of Xi’s diplomatic tour of Bali and Bangkok this week.

Although the Biden administration has called Beijing – not Moscow – the “most serious long-term challenge” to the global order, Xi has been treated as a valuable global partner by Western leaders, many of whom have met with the Chinese leader for talks aimed at increasing. communication and collaboration.

Xi had an exchange with US Vice President Kamala Harris, who is representing the US at the APEC summit in Bangkok, at the event on Saturday. Harris said in a Tweet after that she noticed a “key message” from Biden’s G20 meeting with Xi — the importance of keeping lines of communication open “to responsibly manage the competition between our countries.”

In an impassioned appeal for peace delivered to a meeting of business leaders on the sidelines of the APEC summit on Friday, French President Emmanuel Macron appeared to distinguish between Russia’s actions and tensions with China.

Referring to US-China competition and growing confrontation in Asia’s regional waters, Macron said: “What makes this war different is that it is aggression against international rules. All countries … have stability because of international rules,” before asking Russia to return “to the table” and “to respect international order.”

US Vice President Kamala Harris is meeting with US allies at APEC following North Korea's ballistic missile launch on Friday.

The urgency of that sentiment was heightened after a Russian-made missile landed in Poland, killing two people on Tuesday, during the G20 summit. As a NATO member, a threat to Polish security could trigger a response from the entire bloc.

The situation was defused after an initial investigation suggested the missile had come from the Ukrainian side in a missile defense accident – but highlighted the potential for a miscalculation to spark a world war.

A day after that situation, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken showed what he called a “split screen”.

“What we see is a very remarkable split screen: as the world works to help the most vulnerable people, Russia is targeting them; as leaders worldwide reaffirmed our commitment to the UN Charter and international rules that benefit all our people. President Putin continues to try to tear apart those same principles,” Blinken told reporters Thursday night in Bangkok.

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Coming into the week of international meetings, the United States and its allies were ready to project that message to their international peers. And while strong messages were delivered, gathering consensus around that point of view was not easy – and differences remain.

The G20 and APEC statements both acknowledge divisions between how members voted in the UN to support its resolution “deploring” Russian aggression, and say that while most members “strongly condemned” the war, “there were other views and different assessments of the situation and sanctions.”

Even making such an expression with caveats was an arduous process at both ends, according to officials. Indonesia’s Jokowi said G20 leaders were up until “midnight” discussing the Ukraine clause.

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and Chinese leader Xi Jinping meet at APEC on November 18, 2022 in Bangkok, Thailand.

Nations in the groups have various geo-strategic and economic relationships with Russia that influence their attitudes. But another concern some Asian nations may have is whether measures to censor Russia are part of a US push to weaken Moscow, according to former Thai foreign minister Kantathi Suphamongkhon.

“Countries say we don’t want to be just a pawn in this game to be used to weaken another power,” said Suphamongkhon, an advisory board member of the RAND Corporation Center for Asia Pacific Policy (CAPP). Instead, framing a censure of Russia around its “violation of international law and war crimes that may have been committed” would hit on aspects of the situation that “everyone here rejects,” he said.

Rejecting Russia along those lines may also send a message to China, which itself has violated an international ruling refuting its territorial claims in the South China Sea and has vowed to “reunite” with the autonomous democracy of Taiwan, which it has never controlled. , violently if necessary.

Although this week’s efforts may have increased pressure on Putin, the Russian leader has experience with such dynamics: before Putin’s ouster over his annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, the Group of Seven (G7) bloc was the Group of Eight – and it remains to see if the international expressions will have an effect.

But without Putin in the fold, leaders stressed this week, suffering will continue – and there will be a hole in the international system.

This story has been updated with new information.


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