Sidelines, not the ‘main show’, defined G20 summit

It wasn’t the summit meetings that attracted the most attention but more the sidelines

Andrew J. Bowen
Andrew J. Bowen
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As the leaders of the G20 convened in Hangzhou, President Xi Jinping had hoped the summit would be an opportunity to demonstrate Beijing’s role as a global economic convener who concretely laid steps to boost sluggish global growth. However, it wasn’t the summit meetings that attracted the most attention but more the sidelines, including the airport tarmac.

President Obama’s final visit to China of his presidency was marred on his arrival at the airport by Chinese officials attempting to manhandle both the White House press corps and the US National Security Advisor Susan Rice and her deputy, Ben Rhodes. Reminding this global gathering of the tensions on the Korean peninsula, North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un even fired three ballistic missiles on the final day of the summit. Back home, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel faced losses in her home state elections on Sunday.

Britain’s new Prime Minister Theresa May hoped this summit would be an opportunity for the UK to assert its post-Brexit global role but was bluntly rebuffed both in a long policy white paper Japan published chiding the UK of the economic consequences of their vote and President Obama reminding Ms. May that the UK’s still in the back of the line on trade deals. President Putin even couldn’t resist jabbing the new Prime Minister in their first meeting.

A stronger global financial architecture with deeper coordination and cooperation continues to be marred by virulent populism, which has riled global politics and has brought to prominence political leaders who see globalization as the enemy of the good

Andrew Bowen

Simmering conflicts

As tensions continued to boil in Ukraine, President Obama met with both European leaders and the Russian President separately to continue to try to salvage the Minsk agreements. No substantial progress emerged from these talks.

Similarly, intensive diplomatic negotiations by US Secretary of State John Kerry, and to a lesser degree President Obama, with their Russian counterparts to reach a broader cease-fire as the Syrian opposition sustained deeper losses around Aleppo failed. President Obama acknowledged that gaps remain still between the Russian and American positions.

Obama, however, had a relatively productive meeting with President Erdogan. In their first meeting since the coup, Erdogan expressed more cordiality to his American counterpart than he did to US Vice President Joe Biden on his visit to Ankara last month. President Obama affirmed his support for Erdogan and their mutual efforts in combatting ISIS.

The American President continued his awkward dance of expressing support for Turkish moves in Syria and at the same time, his support for his heavily focused Kurdish ground strategy against ISIS. Obama even made a superficial reference to considering Erdogan’s requests to brining the coup plotters to justice (knowing that Gulen’s extradition is largely out of his hands).

Erdogan also had a diplomatic embrace with his Russian counterpart. The Turkish President’s diplomatic and military moves in Syria suggest that he seeks to reach an agreement on northwest Syria that would prevent first and foremost the PYD from establishing an autonomous region and establish a degree of Turkish influence over the area from which parts of the Syrian opposition could experience a degree of protection.

Stabilizing oil price

The G20 also marked Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman’s first visit to Beijing since President Xi’s visit to the Kingdom in January. He used the visit to deepen trade, investment, and energy ties with Beijing. The Deputy Crown Prince also used it as an opportunity to hold a number of bilateral meetings with the Kingdom’s partners in the G20 both on security and on the Kingdom’s new Vision 2030.

Saudi Energy Minister, Khalid Al-Falih also met with his Russian counterpart, Alexander Novak, where they agreed to work together to address volatility in the the international oil markets and work together to better stabilize the price of oil. While this agreement between the world’s two largest producers brought a brief rise in crude oil price after it was announced, it’s unclear yet how this “historic” co-ordination will substantively work in practice.

Global growth boost?

The “main show” of the G20 for all of its fanfare fell far short in terms of actual deliverables. While the final communiqué is littered with a number of agreed initiatives focused on sustainable development, ending protectionism, taxation, and transitioning from quantitative easing to boost global growth, it’s not clear whether these initiatives have much substance to them or what actual impact they will have in practice.

President Xi’s efforts to establish China as a global economic convener and example fell far short of his expectations. On the issue of the large surplus of steel in the global market (where China has been the main contributor to this), Beijing agreed, after much criticism, to more effectively co-ordinate its steel production levels.

Beijing’s own economic policies continued to face criticism from its peers who challenged its own practices, including its own protectionist policies, for falling not in line with President Xi’s rhetoric.

Efforts to turn the G20 into a more effective organization to boost cooperation amongst the world’s leading economies remain still largely a mixed endeavor at best. A stronger global financial architecture with deeper coordination and cooperation continues to be marred by virulent populism, which has riled global politics and has brought to prominence political leaders who see globalization as the enemy of the good.

Protectionism, geopolitical rivalry, and nationalism have over-taken deep global integration. World leaders acknowledged these challenges but offered few new solutions beyond rhetorical epithets about supporting more “inclusive” growth.

One vague tangible the G20 agreed on was to draft a set of global investment rules to deepen global investment as a way expand global growth in addition to purely low interest rates. They also agreed to pair these new rules with further structural reforms of the economy, but left the details of such initiatives to be worked out.

It was the sidelines than the “main show” that will make the G20 in Hangzhou memorable. Even there, though, a number of opportunities were missed.
Andrew J. Bowen, Ph.D. is a Global Fellow in the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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