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Foreign Policy

The Edges of Conflict at the 2022 G20

Dec 14, 2022

The recently held G20 Summit in Indonesia seemed to confirm a  precarious world order faced with a war in Europe, skyrocketing energy costs, and a threatening and ever more pressing global economic collapse. 

It is impossible to evaluate the current international moment without focusing on the war in Ukraine, and its far-reaching consequences on global trade and energy supplies. However, the politicization of the G20 as a platform threatens its credibility, while simultaneously suggesting that the collection of nations is dominated by Western countries. With respect to population and GDP, this is already true. The G20 nations account for more than 80% of the world's gross domestic product (GDP) and 60% of the global population. However, the narratives of the rest of the world are still heavily threatened by the politics of Washington, Brussels, London, and its faithful allies. There is no need to make a moral judgment about the current international instability, but it is fair to say that the interests of the East fundamentally differ from those of the West. While the war in Ukraine represents a threat to liberal democratic world order, it also tightens food and energy supply lines which are crucial for some of the most vulnerable countries in the world. It is also worth noting that nations like Austria and Hungary have actively made statements contradictory to the U.S.-led narrative about the war in Ukraine. Other countries like Croatia have presidents who actively make statements that are more sympathetic or understanding to the Russian cause in Ukraine. The ‘unity’ within the European Union is increasingly fragile precisely because differences within the European Union differ among its diverse membership.  The different impacts of the war in Ukraine is just one example of the differences between the interests of the U.S. and its immediate allies, and the more multipolar-aligned collection of nations, which have become increasingly more active in formats like the BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. 

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who hosted the summit, expressed his concerns of geopolitical tensions overshadowing the summit’s real goals when he stated that, “The G20 is not meant to be a political forum…it's meant to be about economics and development.” 

Although the Indonesian host aimed to focus on economic and development, President Biden traveled to the G20 summit with the intention of cooling down tensions between China and the U.S., while simultaneously hoping that such a rapprochement would further isolate Russia during its war in Ukraine. In focusing on Taiwan and Ukraine, President Xi and President Biden did in fact direct the focus to the geopolitical stage. However, their conversation was also incredibly revealing. Although the western media focused on an apparent positive meeting between the two world leaders, the meeting also further proved that China and the U.S. have two fundamentally incompatible views on the issue of Taiwan. Taiwan is at the very center of Chinese national interests, and the U.S. has consistently violated China’s red lines on Taiwan by sending congressional representatives to the island while also supplying the Taiwanese government with weapons. Despite the positive photo-op in Bali, the Biden administration has actively undermined China’s views on Taiwan over the past year. 

With respect to Ukraine, President Xi accurately emphasized the complexity of the issue and need for nuanced thinking and strategizing during periods of international crisis sparked by a conflict like the one in Ukraine. President Xi stated that wars produce no winners, that simple solutions cannot possibly solve complex issues like the one in Ukraine, and that confrontations between major powers should be avoided. 

President Xi’s statements reveal that the conflict in Ukraine, and its origins, are incredibly complex with long-lasting historical, ideological, geographical, and economic triggers and implications. Further, the U.S. and its allies have actively become more involved in the conflict by sending arms, and even sending special security forces to train and assist Ukrainians in their battles against the Russians, while also providing the Ukrainians with satellite-procured intelligence. That being said, President Xi’s concerns about international conflict allude that the war in Ukraine is a conflict that cannot easily be solved with U.S.-led narratives. Later on, the U.S. media spun a joint statement condemning potential nuclear war, into a joint-condemnation of Russia, which never happened. 

President Xi later was quoted as telling Biden that, “a statesman should think about and know where to lead his country. He should also think about and know how to get along with other countries and the wider world… Instead of talking in one way and acting in another, the United States needs to honor its commitments with concrete action.” Such a statement is obviously referencing Washington’s contradictory statements and actions related to Taiwan. The Biden administration actively states that it hopes to respect China’s territorial convictions, but simultaneously arms Taiwan. Biden has also stated, on four occasions, that the U.S. would defend Taiwan in a potential war against the mainland, while simultaneously stating at the G20 summit that the U.S. respects the One China Policy. In many ways, similar U.S. statements about NATO expansion littered the previous decades, while simultaneously expanding the military alliance eastward toward the Russian border. It is likely that Beijing is terrified that the U.S. is pursuing the same strategy with respect to Taiwan. 

In many ways, Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s fears were completely valid. Geopolitical tensions overshadowed the central objectives of the G20 summit, while the rest of the world watches inflation and energy prices crater living standards across the globe. If Washington continues to hold an uncompromising position toward both China and Russia, then conflict is inevitable over the next decades because Beijing has clearly stated its priorities and red lines. The world should hope and pray that Washington does not ignore the concerns of its Chinese counterparts in the same way that multiple U.S. administrations ignored the concerns of its Russian partners, because a conflict in and around Taiwan could potentially damage the world economy much more than that of the war in Ukraine. 

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