Funny thing about summits of world leaders: Sometimes, not showing up is the best way to grab attention.
Chinese paramount leader Xi Jinping’s expected absence at this year’s Group of 20 gathering, set for this weekend in New Delhi, has already thrown off the event’s momentum. Russian leader Vladimir Putin also won’t be there and even has some counterprogramming planned.
It’s Xi’s first time skipping the annual gathering, and aides are mum as to why; they’ll say only that Chinese Premier Li Qiang will represent Beijing.
Xi’s no-show is fueling speculation that he’s snubbing Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi due to rising tension over their shared border and U.S. attempts to woo India as a hedge against China. It’s also possible that Xi, facing an economic crisis at home, is wary of leaving his country amid growing domestic discontent.
At the same time, a Chinese economic meltdown — however unlikely — is likely to affect the global economy, so Xi’s decision to skip the G-20, which bills itself as “the premier forum for international economic cooperation” could frustrate those who do attend and wish to speak to Xi on the topic. And with respect to Li, there’s only one person who matters in authoritarian communist China — and he’s not that person.
The power in a grouping like the G-20 truly lies with the heads of state and government, as compared to gatherings of, say, the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank, which have massive bureaucracies that function no matter what, said Bruce Jones, a former senior adviser to the United Nations secretary general.
“The real action at a multilateral gathering like the G-20 is in the bilateral, private meetings,” added Jones, now a foreign affairs analyst with the Brookings Institution. “It’s where the real deals are cut. And you can’t do it if you’re not there.”
Vladimir Putin has usually shown up to G-20 gatherings. His absence this year deprives G-20 attendees of an opportunity to appeal to him directly to end the war in Ukraine and its fallout, including its effect on food prices.
Putin, like other world leaders, does occasionally skip major global gatherings. But his international travel is under particular scrutiny since the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for the Russian autocrat’s arrest in relation to the war. Still, Modi’s government would be unlikely to put him in handcuffs. India isn’t a party to the ICC, and it strives to keep good ties with Russia despite the war.
Putin plans to grab attention elsewhere this weekend, closer to home. He’s hosting the Eastern Economic Forum, which starts Sunday in Vladivostok. It could be the venue for a meeting between him and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, whom the U.S. alleges is considering supplying Russia with weapons for the Ukraine war.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is the likely Putin stand-in at the G-20. American officials privately say Lavrov wields little actual power in the Russian system. Putin, however, finds him a useful figure to trot out on the global stage and, like him or not, Lavrov is a skilled diplomat.
Lavrov will likely try to derail any attempt to forge a G-20 formal statement condemning the Kremlin for the war on Ukraine.
Last year in Indonesia, to the surprise of many, the summit did produce a declaration in which most attendees criticized the war.
Putin’s absence could offer relief to some leaders who’d prefer not to be in photos with a man against whom they’re helping wage war.
But there will still be potential for awkward snapshots — namely with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is planning to attend.
The crown prince is the de facto leader of his country, and his poor human rights record is well known. Saudi Arabia recently condemned a man to death because of some tweets.
But he won’t be a total pariah. U.S. President Joe Biden has already met with the crown prince, complete with a fist bump, and could use the G-20 as a venue to push him to normalize diplomatic relations with Israel as part of a grander Middle East peace initiative. Saudi Arabia’s influence over global oil prices, too, means the crown prince can’t be ignored.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has not been invited, according to media reports. Last year, Zelenskyy gave a virtual address to the event.
It’s a lost opportunity for Zelenskyy to appeal for serious support from top countries beyond Europe and the United States.
But the G-20 is more of an economics-focused grouping than a security one, Jones noted. “It’s not the right format for Zelenskyy,” he said.
While the list of attendees could change at any moment, there’s no question several will take up the Ukrainian cause in Zelenskyy’s absence.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised to be among them. And Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak likely will speak out strongly as well.
Those leaders tend to say and do predictable things at such events. Biden is expected to use the G-20 platform to emphasize his longstanding view that America’s approach to the global order is superior — and less coercive — than China’s.
(Biden may have to scrap his trip if he tests positive for Covid as his wife recently did. Spain’s Pedro Sanchez announced Thursday that he was pulling out because he contracted the virus.)
For the less predictable, keep an eye on Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The Turkish leader is a regular go-between for many of the world leaders at the summit.
Do you need to get a message to Putin? Erdogan can do that. Do you want to push him on future additions to NATO? He has a lot of sway on that. Do you want to encourage Arab countries to ease up on oil prices? He’s got lots of connections.
Erdogan recently met with Putin to push him to restore the Black Sea Grain Initiative. That deal allows for agricultural exports from Ukrainian ports amid the war and is crucial for many countries who’ve seen food prices jump due to the conflict.
Putin has resisted reviving the agreement, but Erdogan isn’t giving up. The G-20 may be a good venue to pressure Russia to rethink its stance.
But without Putin himself there, countries worried about their food supplies may have to look beyond this weekend for a resolution.
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