How credible will Rishi Sunak’s Britain be at the G20 in Bali?

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL November 14, 2022

Three weeks into the job, Britain’s  Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will make his second outing on the world stage as Britain’s  prime minister. Mr Sunak’s appearance at the G20 summit in Bali will be closely watched, at least by the British media. (And by the Indian media when he meets his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi.)

But there are three reasons for everyone else to pay attention to the G20 (and occasionally, to Mr Sunak’s presence and pronouncements.)

First, because this summit takes place in unpropitious times. One Financial Times journalist labelled the in-person gathering of heads of state and government of the world’s major economies as the first meeting of the second cold war.

Second, Britain is in a “fiscal hole” in the words of Mr Sunak’s own finance minister, Jeremy Hunt, and currently has the dubious distinction of serving as a cautionary story on neo-liberalism in a time of inflation.

And finally, there may be some sight and sound of Mr Sunak’s hitherto unknown views on foreign policy. How does he see Britain’s role in the world? He hasn’t ever really said, even though he’s held various government jobs for the past few years, not least two as chancellor of the exchequer.

By all accounts, Mr Sunak sees his task at the G20 summit as a matter of pragmatic prose rather than passionate poetry. He knows that his first task is domestic – restoring the UK’s economic stability – and this will feed into the international picture.  As former British diplomat Peter Ricketts has said, “He [Mr Sunak] comes to the G20 from a rather weak position. Everybody will be conscious that he’s facing massive domestic economic issues at home, which don’t put him in a great position to offer leadership, frankly, in that area.”

Right on cue, an unnamed No. 10 Downing Street official has noted: “The only good foreign policy that is made is off the back of a strong economic footing.”

The only sliver of good news, if it can be called that, is the relative unimportance of Mr Sunak’s presence at the G20 in the general scheme of things. Who will really notice the British prime minister when the summit will include a highly anticipated meeting between US President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping?