KUALALUMPUR: Deeply divided top diplomats from the world's richest and largest developing nations failed to find common ground Friday over Russia's war in Ukraine and how to deal with its global impacts, leaving prospects for future cooperation in the forum uncertain.
At talks that were were knocked off balance by two unrelated and unexpected political developments, including the shocking assassination of a former Japanese prime minister, far from the Indonesian resort of Bali where they were meeting, Group of 20 foreign ministers heard an emotional plea for unity and an end to the war from their Indonesian host.
Yet, consensus remained elusive amid deepening East-West splits driven by China and Russia on one side and the United States and Europe on the other. There was no group photo taken nor a final communique issued as has been done in previous years, and acrimony appeared pervasive, especially between Russia and Western participants.
Although they were present in the same room at the same time for the first time since the Ukraine war began, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov pointedly ignored each other.
Lavrov walked out of the proceedings at least twice: once when his German counterpart Annalena Baerbock spoke at the opening session and again just before Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba was to speak by video at the second session, according to a Western diplomat present.
The meeting opened only hours after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced his resignation Thursday, prompting his foreign secretary, Liz Truss, to depart Bali, and was just underway when former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was shot. Abe later died of his wounds.
Both Johnson and Abe are well known to the G-20 family, having participated in numerous similar conferences and leaders' summits in the past. One goal of Friday's meeting was to lay the groundwork for the upcoming G-20 summit that Indonesia will host in November.
Many, if not all, of the participants expressed shock at Abe's shooting that occurred as they were holding the first of two plenary sessions on the importance of restoring confidence in multilateralism and upholding the global rules-based order.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi had urged the group — which included Lavrov, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Blinken and several European counterparts — to overcome mistrust for the sake of a planet confronting multiple challenges from the coronavirus to climate change as well as Ukraine.
“The world has yet to recover from the pandemic but we are already confronted with another crisis: the war in Ukraine,” Marsudi said. “The ripple effects are being felt globally on food, on energy and physical space.” She noted that poor and developing countries now face the brunt of fuel and grain shortages resulting from the war in Ukraine and said that the G-20 has a responsibility to step up and deal with the matter to ensure the rules-based global order remains relevant.
The Ukraine war has shaken that order, she said, as Lavrov appeared to shuffle papers without expression at his seat in between the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and Mexico.
“Honestly, we cannot deny that it has become more difficult for the world to sit together,” Marsudi said. She added plaintively: “The world is watching us, so we cannot fail.” She said the Ukraine war was discussed at almost all bilateral meetings during the one-day gathering.
But after the meeting was over, Marsudi could not point to any agreements reached by all participants, although she said there had been broad concern about food and energy disruptions caused by the war in Ukraine. She added that only “some countries expressed condemnation of the act of invasion.'' Indeed, although they sat around the same large conference table neither Lavrov nor Blinken spoke to each other.
“You know, it was not us who abandoned all contacts,'' Lavrov told reporters after the first session. ''It was the United States. That's all I can say. And we are not running after anybody suggesting meetings. If they don't want to talk, it's their choice.” Asked why there had been no group photo, Lavrov snapped: “I didn't invite anyone to pose for a photo together with me.” “It's obvious that they used the G-20 for goals that weren't envisaged when it was created,” he said.
Shortly thereafter, Blinken took direct aim at the Russian delegation, accusing Moscow in the second G-20 session of blocking millions of tons of grain in Ukrainian ports and causing food insecurity in large parts of the world, according to a Western diplomat present.
Lavrov was not there for Blinken's comments and his stand-in began Russia's intervention by telling the group she did not have prepared remarks, according to the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the closed-door meeting.
U.S. officials had said they were determined not to allow distractions to divert attention from what they believe should be the primary focuses of the Bali conference: the disruption to world food and energy supplies caused by Russia's war in Ukraine, blaming Moscow for it, and marshalling a response to halt shortages that are already wreaking havoc in Africa, Asia and elsewhere.
U.S. officials had hinted there would be no group communique as there has been in previous years when the group had produced joint statements on key issues like terrorism, transnational crime, climate and economic matters that have been viewed as blueprints for global action.
U.S. officials said it was less important for the G-20 to present a unified stance as an entity than it would be for smaller blocs of countries and individual nations to speak out and take action.
The competition for support among the sides has been fierce. Wang and Lavrov each stopped in various Asian capitals on their way to Bali, drumming up support for various Chinese and Russian positions and fortifying their ties among non-allied nations.
Blinken, the French, Germans and Brits, meanwhile, all arrived in Bali from two Western-oriented and organized gatherings in Europe last week: the G-7 and NATO summits at which there was little sign of rancour or debate and unity on Ukraine was assured.
With its broader membership, including countries like host Indonesia and large developing nations like India, Brazil, South Africa and others, the G-20 is far more diverse, sceptical of Western intentions and more open to entreaties and offers from big neighbours like China and Russia and more vulnerable to their threats.
Attempting to ply a middle route, this year's G-20 president, Indonesia, has tried to bridge what gaps are possible, laying out an agenda that is not inherently divisive or political. The country has sought to remain neutral in dealing with Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and President Joko Widodo has been guarded in his comments.