Foreign Minister Bob Carr had a serious chat with Vladimir Putin as he headed into the first working meeting of the G20 leaders’ summit in St Petersburg.
Most world leaders simply shook the Russian president’s hand and had a few brief words at the official welcome but Australia’s foreign minister engaged the president in a more lengthy conversation before entering the Constantine Palace.
During the round-table talks Senator Carr – standing in for Prime Minister Kevin Rudd – was seated next to Mr Putin as Australia is taking over the G20 presidency for 2014.
Before the talks got underway, Senator Carr told reporters he was hopeful the two-day forum could resolve the differences between the United States and Russia over how to handle the Syria crisis.
“I have never demonised Russia for its position,” the foreign minister said.
“We’ve got to work with Russia to see if we can bring together the possibility of a ceasefire and a negotiated solution.”
World leaders discussed Syria at a dinner hosted by Mr Putin at the historic Peterhof Palace on Thursday night.
Most, including Senator Carr, arrived together, but US President Barack Obama was initially nowhere to be seen and only turned up at the palace half an hour later.
The Australian foreign minister was laughing with Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong as they walked through the palace grounds.
Senator Carr earlier held bilateral meetings with his French and Canadian counterparts.
He is planning to meet with the Chinese foreign minister too before leaving St Petersburg.
Mr Obama arrived in Russia after clearing the first hurdle in his race to win domestic congressional backing for punitive strikes over the alleged use of chemical weapons by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria.
Senator Carr reiterated at the summit Canberra’s support for any limited US air strikes that doesn’t involve boots on the ground.
The G20 is predominantly a financial forum which helps set the global economic agenda.
Australian lawyer Robert Milliner is part of the B20 group which channels the business community’s policy recommendations to the G20.
He said the B20 was hoping for a better investment environment that would lead to the creation of more jobs.
He told AAP while the G20 had a critical role to play on economic matters it was understandable Syria was interfering with that in St Petersburg.
“But we would encourage governments, while they have to deal with issues of the moment, to also focus on using these institutions to drive the outcomes that are necessary around economic growth.”
Trade unions wants targets to be set for increased investment and jobs growth to ensure the G20 isn’t just a “talk-fest”.
But Mr Milliner on Thursday said it was difficult to have specific targets given member states were so varied in terms of economic development.
The leaders’ summit winds up on Friday.