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Opinion A tense world hopes for cool heads at the G-20 summit in Bali

Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Beijing on Oct. 23. (Bloomberg News)
5 min

The Group of 20 summit scheduled in Bali, Indonesia, this month will include the presidents of the United States, China and perhaps Russia and Ukraine — providing a rare opportunity for face-to-face diplomacy at one of the tensest moments in modern history.

The first item on my Bali agenda would be a reaffirmation that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” as five nuclear-weapons states put it in a joint statement in January. Perhaps they could again sign such a statement, this time with the leaders of the world’s other leading economies as witnesses. Affirming the red line against nuclear weapons is important now.

The headline conversation in Bali is likely to be President Biden’s potential encounter with Chinese President Xi Jinping. U.S. and Chinese officials have been signaling that they want to lower the temperature in the relationship after a period of unusually high tension. A meeting would make sense for both sides: The United States and its allies want a cooling-off opportunity, and China needs better relations as its economy slows to less than 3 percent annual growth, perhaps indefinitely.

“This is the right moment for a relaunch between the U.S. and China,” says Harvard Kennedy School professor Graham Allison, the author of “Destined for War,” a book about the risk of a Sino-American conflict. The two countries are inescapably rivals, Allison argues, but they share an existential interest in averting climate catastrophe and nuclear war.

Building a floor under the Sino-American relationship would require both sides to exercise more caution over Taiwan and the South China Sea. They should cooperate on global economic issues, too, in responding to food and energy shortages and any future global economic downturn. They should resume talks about curbing global climate change. And they should underline their shared interest in averting nuclear escalation in Ukraine and in ending that war.

Xi will arrive in Bali with the authority of a Chinese emperor, after his dominating performance at last month’s party congress. His attendance might look like a charm offensive, as he meets all the major global leaders after being off the world stage for most of the past two years. But Xi has new problems, too: his slowing economy, his mismanagement of covid-19 and other domestic problems, and the world’s growing wariness of Chinese power.

As for Biden, he has seemed to want it both ways with China: to look tough and conciliatory at the same time. It hasn’t worked very well. He made a mistake in acquiescing to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August. Her trip, however well intended, was ultimately a setback for Taipei, as it led China to tighten its military squeeze on the island. It was a moment where U.S. domestic politics trumped its strategic interests.

U.S. officials should manage the China relationship so that the past few years’ downward spiral doesn’t accelerate. Xi is convinced that the two countries are heading toward war, according to an American who knows the Chinese leadership well. The United States should convey that, while competition is inevitable, conflict isn’t.

Vladimir Putin might decide to stay away from Bali, where he’s likely to be shunned by many attendees. But if he goes, Biden’s aides should explore whether meeting the Russian leader would accomplish anything useful. Biden can’t negotiate a settlement in Ukraine — that’s up to Kyiv — but he can discuss how to prevent any direct U.S.-Russian military conflict. That dialogue is always valuable.

The Kremlin, perhaps sensing the world’s anxiety about its nuclear saber-rattling, has backed off in recent days. Putin said on Oct. 27 about nuclear escalation: “There is no point in that, neither political, nor military.” And the Russian Foreign Ministry reiterated Wednesday: “Nuclear war is impermissible, there can be no winner in it, and it must never be unleashed.” Putin might repeat that message in Bali; but then, he said he wouldn’t invade Ukraine, either.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is tentatively scheduled to attend the Bali summit, at least virtually. That would present an opportunity for a Putin-Zelensky meeting, with the obvious mediator being Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who just managed to persuade Putin to reopen the Black Sea for Ukrainian grain exports. But the moment doesn’t seem right yet for settling that war diplomatically.

Let’s be honest: If Russian troops keep pulverizing Ukrainian civilians, the best accomplishment in Bali would be a strong statement from a majority of G-20 leaders condemning Russian aggression. That would demonstrate that Russia will remain isolated — and its economic future clouded — until this brutal war ends.

Summit meetings are showy events, usually more photo opportunity than real diplomacy. We can expect to see smiling faces in the staged group photographs. But the world has been on a knife’s edge in recent months, and we can hope Bali provides some cool heads and frank conversations.