The G20 Summit in China: Derailed Before It Began?

The prospects of implementing a major global reform agenda at this year’s G20 summit, hosted by China in Hangzhou between September 4-5, are expectedly modest. In fact, any potential for breakthrough results may have been derailed before the summit even began.

The group boldly unified in 2009 while the global economy reeled from an economic crisis. Since then, receiving anything more than a lofty communique about rebalancing the global economy or addressing any number of the major global challenges the world faces have been difficult to conclude. Geopolitical realities and the clashing attitudes of developed and developing nations over equitable growth continue to afflict global institutions, where it was once hoped that regular meetings could eventually bridge real divides and steer the world towards a more cooperative environment where institutional diplomacy decides outcomes, not muscular posturing or the threat of economic and military power, to achieve political ends.

Image of Obama and Putin in Hangzhou, China on tarmac.

President Obama and President Putin touchdown in Hangzhou, China for the G20 Summit, Sept 4-5, 2016.

 

Some continue to be hopeful that liberal internationalism can handle the complexities of world politics, but there are no illusions for the 2016 summit. This summit is expected to set out as measured and incremental an agenda as the others. However, before the substantive portions of the agenda could even be reached, a number of embarrassing altercations occurred between the host nation and who some would still consider the most important G20 guest, the United States.

When world leaders meet, either for bilateral or multilateral summits, every detail is scheduled by the visiting advance team in cooperation with their host country counterparts. The agenda for discussion, where each Head of State will be seated, and how the host nation greets its guests after their landing.

Chinese authorities have rolled out the red carpet for leaders including India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, the South Korean president, Park Geun-hye, Brazil’s president, Michel Temer, and the British prime minister, Theresa May, who touched down on Sunday morning

The same lavish red carpet rollout was not afforded to the President of the United States.

The 2008 G20 Washington Summit on Financial Markets and the World Economy took place on November 14–15, 2008, in Washington, D.C., United States. The United States held a commanding role, as the sole superpower capable of gathering the most important economic nations together and hammering out an agenda that could calm financial markets and ease the panic rippling through the global economy as the world crisis set in. How things have changed.

By contrast, in 2016, President Obama is attending his last G20 summit, hosted by China in their nation’s tech hub, where companies like Alibaba live and are now central to the lifeblood of the global economy. U.S. officials have already been faced with multiple symbolic snubs and diplomatic rows that may derail Sino-US discussions in later meetings. President Obama “was forced to disembark from Air Force One through a little-used exit in the plane’s belly after no rolling staircase was provided when he landed in the eastern Chinese city on Saturday afternoon”, The Guardian reported. The Chinese would not unwittingly forget this detail. They are being accused of arranging the snub as a calculated move made to make the President look weak. It was a signal to other world leaders that the President is enjoying his last summit. The Chinese hope to convey that his efforts and his promises will have little impact on U.S. Foreign Policy by the time the next G20 summit is held, but China’s positions will remain clear.

Additionally, a diplomatic row was recorded by the press on the tarmac, between National Security Advisor (NSA) Susan Rice, a U.S. aide, and a Chinese official. The Chinese official audibly shouted in English while pointing and speaking angrily This is our country. This is our airport,” at the aide.

Of course, U.S. officials have made light of both altercations, brushing off the tarmac altercation involving Susan Rice as a simple misunderstanding, and claiming that in the past the President has been forced to take the “Afghan Exit” off of Air Force One, even in friendly countries.

The Chinese are known for meticulously planning the decorum of their hosted summits. The respectable entry of other Heads-of-State into China suggest that these were calculated snubs meant to make the President look weak and diminish the U.S. position before entering into these talks.

That isn’t to say accidents don’t happen when world leaders meet. Former President Jimmy Carter pioneered the use of language interpreters during his tenure at the White House between 1976-1980. One contribution was the use of sign language interpreters appearing on national TV. In 1977, during a visit to Poland, Carter gave a speech to express his aim to learn the Poles’ “desires for the future.” His interpreter, however, translated that phrase to a baffled Polish audience as “I desire the Poles carnally.”

It is unlikely that these altercations were an accident in the vein of Jimmy Carter’s. China is steering this G20 agenda. Minimizing the President helps achieve that goal. The Chinese Foreign Minister Wany Yi has set out the ten results the Chinese hope to achieve from the G20 Hangzhou Summit. FM Yi has prioritized “innovative growth” and the “UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development” as the first two goals of his released statement. To build on the latter, the Chinese government has invited more developing countries to attend the meeting, including the President of Egypt Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the President and Chairperson of the African Union Idriss Déby , and even the President of Kazakhstan as a guest invitee. In other words, the Hangzhou Summit is looking more like the G30 than the G20. China hopes to utilize a larger delegation of developing nations to push forward their two major agendas, both of which, while important to the rebalance of the global economy, would ask more of developed nations, including yielding Western innovation and technology to developing nations, something China has insisted on in the past.

If the developing nations attending the G20 summit capitalize and are able to steer the agenda towards access to Western technology, it is unlikely that the global economic factors of most concern to developed nations will be addressed, or find the opportunity for solutions be found. In 2002, Secretary-General of the United Nations pleaded for “inclusive globalization” to be a primary theme of global economic relations. Almost 15 years later, the results of the Secretary Generals unheeded remarks have become clear. A globalization that creates dramatic wealth for a connected minority while leaving the majority economically estranged and unprepared for the new economy has led to a rise in both left-wing and right-wing populist movements. From the election of Syriza in Greece to the Brexit referendum that will lead to the UK leaving the European Union, and the rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in the U.S. The majority of populations have seen their standards of living slump and are turning to anti-globalization political movements. while globalization has lifted millions out of poverty in the developing world, political leaders in the West have been unable to find a balance between breaking down barriers and creating prosperous societies.

The social and economic needs of Western societies are unlikely to be addressed at this year’s G20 Summit. That may be to the whole world’s detriment. The World Trade Organization reported in 2014 that trade restrictions are on the rise. 1,244 restrictive measures have been recorded since the onset of the crisis in 2008.

With a larger developing world delegation present, a U.S. President leaving office in mere months, a China focused on an open economy agenda while savings it’s nationalism for territorial disputes rather than economic inequities, all combined with the precedent of these summits having little real impact, we’re unlikely to see anything more than another modest communique out of Hangzhou.

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