Summits of Group of 20 nations invariably happen with at least one crisis burning, which shapes the discussions both in the meeting room and the one-on-one huddles in the hallways.
Leaders tend to gather around kindred spirits. Occasionally they gang up on one particular leader — think Russia’s president in 2014 (after the annexation of Crimea) or the Saudi Crown Prince in 2018 (after the murder of critic Jamal Khashoggi).
This week’s summit on the tropical Indonesian resort island of Bali will be anything but breezy. In fact it could be the trickiest G-20 gathering to date. It comes against the backdrop of Russia’s war in Ukraine, plus increasingly confrontation between the US and China, and tensions over oil supply between the US and Saudi Arabia.
Here are eight things to watch as the meeting gets underway:
A Reduced Russian Presence
President Vladimir Putin is skipping the summit, which comes with his war in Ukraine in its ninth month. His troops are bogged down (and in places like Kherson in the south, they have withdrawn). His economy is under heavy sanction. US President Joe Biden is among the leaders who have said they would struggle to be in the same room with him.
Certainly he’d be unlikely to get even the tepid welcome he received in Australia in 2014 (where then-Canadian leader Stephen Harper told Putin he’d shake his hand but “you need to get out of Ukraine,” while host Tony Abbott had previously threatened to “shirtfront” the Russian president.)
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov gets to carry the can this time around. But it’ll be awkward whether Putin is there or not. Lavrov may join the leaders in some sessions. And does he take part in a traditional “family photo” or a gala dinner?
Joe Biden Meets Xi Jinping
The presidents of the two biggest economies in the world are set to meet in Bali on Monday afternoon. It’s their first face-to-face chat since Biden took office. It comes shortly after Xi secured a third five-year term which saw him coalesce power within the Communist Party, and after Biden’s Democrats did better in in midterm congressional elections than predicted.
Tensions between the two countries are high — over trade policies, technology, market access, China’s actions on Taiwan and Hong Kong and the fact Xi has avoided direct condemnation of Putin for his February invasion of Ukraine.
Still, the importance of China and the US to each other as export markets has diminished somewhat in recent years, as tariffs, tensions and trade diversion to other countries have taken their toll on two-way trade. And they do have reason to reset some guardrails on the relationship, perhaps by focusing on common interests such as stemming climate change and preventing the use of nuclear weapons, particularly by Russia in Ukraine.
Ukraine Grain and a Russian Oil Price Cap
The July agreement to get Ukrainian grain moving again from the country’s ports was a breakthrough in helping poorer nations around the world cope with food shortages and put a lid on global inflation. It hit a hiccup last month when Putin briefly walked away from the agreement after an attack on his Black Sea Fleet, before being coaxed back by Turkey.
Either way the deal is up for renewal on Nov. 19, so the clock is ticking. Even if Putin balks at an extension, Ukraine, Turkey and the United Nations may opt to allow ships to keep coming and going. But shipping companies may decide the risks are too great, and the insurance costs too high.
Meanwhile Group of Seven leaders are still scrambling to finalize a planned cap on the price of Russian oil exports, needing to convince other countries to at least support a cap in principle in their price negotiations with Moscow.
Tensions Between Groups Within the G-20
Putin’s war has exacerbated the divide between the leading economies that make up the G-7 — including the US, UK, Germany and France — and what is often called the “Global South,” — less developed nations with fewer tools to hand to counter food and energy shortages, the ravages of climate change and poverty.
That split will show up in full force in Bali. There’s a sense of resentment from some quarters at what they see as a lack of support from bigger states to counter these challenges. And about being pushed to fall into line on sanctions against Russia, or limits on purchases of its energy. It more broadly reflects an increasingly multipolar world where alliances are shifting around China as well as the US, and on a more regional basis around countries like Saudi Arabia.
The Deep Freeze Between Saudi Arabia and the US
Don’t expect to see Biden in a cozy corner chat with Saudi Arabia’s defacto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. Their countries have been trading insults for weeks after Riyadh used its clout at OPEC+ to cut oil production. That’s despite Biden making a trip to the Kingdom in July in a bid to enlist Prince Mohammed’s help to temper oil prices at a time US gasoline prices were on the rise.
The White House accused Saudi Arabia of coercing other OPEC+ countries into agreeing to a huge cut in oil production. Some US lawmakers started making noises about curbing weapons sales to Saudi. For his part, the Crown Prince seemed unperturbed, and is sending a signal with reports that Xi will make a visit to Saudi next month.
A Clutch of First Timers
This summit will see some leaders making their G-20 debut. The meeting provides the chance to deepen relationships with others, but also can be riddled with pitfalls for someone navigating the complexities of the gathering for the first time.
The newbie list includes Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol. Three G-7 countries have new representatives: Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. Although then-outgoing leader Angela Merkel invited Scholz to the last G-20 in Italy and included him in key meetings in a unusual and genteel handover process.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro will likely be there as a lame duck, having recently lost a run-off vote to Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
Indonesia’s Logistical Tap Dance
The hosts will have their hands full just preventing the summit veering off course. There is the logistical nightmare of keeping some leaders who don’t want to see each other from accidentally meeting in a corridor. While Indonesia will want an end-meeting communique it’s hard to see how one can be agreed because Russia refuses to call its actions in Ukraine an invasion. Other summit traditions like a “family photo” of leaders are very much in doubt.
For Indonesia it’s about showing some progress, or at least statements of intent, on collective challenges like debt, food security and climate change. Yet the real business will be done in sideline meetings and late-night chats rather than in a big conference room. And perhaps the best Indonesia can hope for is that there are no massive dust-ups in public.
The G-7 summit in Canada in June 2018 potentially represents a cautionary tale of how quickly things can go wrong. Leaders huddled late at night to hash out a communique in the face of vigorous objections by then-US President Donald Trump to the language on trade. An iconic photo showed leaders gathered around Trump, pressing him to sign off. Eventually he did — only to “unsign” hours later when he’d already left the summit, accusing host Justin Trudeau of being dishonest.
For Biden, the meeting risks being overshadowed by his old nemesis. Trump has been touting a “big announcement” this week — and the expectation is he’ll say he’s running for the Republican nomination for the 2024 presidential election.
If Trump does throw his hat into the ring, it’ll no doubt become the first thing any other leader asks Biden about, especially whether he will now commit himself to seeking re-election (Biden has talked about how he ran in 2020 in order to ward off a second Trump term).
Another person who might decide to intercede on Bali is North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who has been letting off more missiles and has made preparations to potentially test an atomic device.
A North Korean nuclear event would immediately steal the spotlight with leaders from the US (foe), China (ally), Japan (foe), South Korea (foe) and Russia (ally) all in the one place.