G20 summit: Substance was in the sideshows

By Ameen Izzadeen
We cannot be over optimistic that this week’s G 20 summit in one of China’s most prosperous cities would become a catalyst to revitalise the global economy. In the run-up to the Hangzhou summit, the media hype gave one the impression it would find a way to boost global growth, deal with the Brexit shock and the rise of protectionism in world trade. Notwithstanding the call by the summit’s host, China’s President Xi Jinping, to convert the “talk shop” into an “action team”, the end-of-summit communiqué indicated this was yet another summit where they came, they talked and they shammed.
G20 is basically an informal economic group. The G20, like the Non-Aligned Movement, has no secretariat. But NAM has a common approach to third world issues. At least, it had in the past. Formed in 1999, the G20, now comprising 19 countries and the European Union, seeks to maintain international financial stability and economic momentum. But it appears that the Hangzhou summit has made little headway in the direction of a global economic revival, what with the undercurrents of the summit being one of suspicion over China’s global ambitions. There were complaints about China’s steel exports flooding global markets and about China making it difficult for foreign investors to enter its market.
The only benefit that international summits of this nature bring was the bilateral meetings between world leaders who are at loggerheads over various disputes. Thus the G20 summit saw several meetings where crucial world issues were discussed. They ranged from the Syrian war and the Afghan peace process to the South China Sea disputes and the US missile deployment in South Korea. Though there was hardly a major announcement at the end of these meetings on the sidelines of the summit, the fact that world leaders holding opposing views on global issues met and discussed matters appeared to have helped ease tension.
Take the meeting between the United States President Barack Obama, now reduced to a lame duck leader with only four months to serve in office, and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. The picture that captured the formal handshake showed the two leaders seemingly staring at each other. They are poles apart on the crisis in Ukraine, the war in Syria, NATO’s eastward expansion and other crucial world issues. Yet the talks between the two leaders and their foreign ministers at least stirred hopes that a solution to the Syrian crisis was possible.
Similarly, Obama’s meeting with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also helped the two countries to narrow their differences after ties between the two NATO allies plummeted following the July 15 failed coup attempt by a small group of Turkish military officers.
Also significant was Putin’s meeting with China’s President. The meeting between the two strategic allies who hold similar views on many global issues was as sweet as ice cream on the diplomatic cake. Putin, in fact, presented Xi a box of Russian ice cream which is popular among the Chinese. If China wants to be a superpower, then it must have a band of dependable allies in times of need. Russia is one such ally.
Since around 2005, China, soon-to-be the world’s number one economy, has been gradually, quietly and cautiously establishing an international profile befitting a world leader. Yet it had tactfully avoided getting involved in conflicts in the Middle East which the United States regards as part of its domain of influence. But last month, in a significant policy shift, China expressed support for the Bashar al-Assad regime, which Russia is trying to prop up with its military intervention. The announcement came following a visit by a high-level Chinese military delegation to Damascus. The delegation offered military assistance to the Assad regime.
“China and Syria’s militaries have a traditionally friendly relationship, and China’s military is willing to keep strengthening exchanges and cooperation with Syria’s military,” China’s state news agency Xinhua quoted China’s Central Military Commission Director Guan Youfeias as saying in a report filed from Damascus. For obvious reasons, mainstream Western media that have embedded themselves with the war party underreported the significance of the Chinese military delegation’s visit to Syria and its support for Assad during the height of war.
Then take the meeting between Xi and Obama. Apparently, the US media were overdramatising the protocol blunder over the Chinese officials’s failure to offer a rolling staircase for Obama to descend from Air Force 1 and the Chinese officials’ yelling “this-is-our-country” at the US media team at the airport. But the meeting saw the two leaders discussing ways and means of improving cooperation and reducing tensions.
Apart from the usual issues such as terrorism and trade, Xi and Obama discussed maritime risk reduction and cooperation and the Afghanistan peace process — issues which China considers vital for its One-Belt-One-Road initiative. The two leaders also announced their decision to ratify the Paris climate deal, a significant step by the world’s two biggest emitters of greenhouse gases.
The meeting between President Xi and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was also significant because it took place days after India signed a defence pact with the United States. Called LEMOA, or Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement, the pact makes the two countries’ naval, air force and army bases available to each other for servicing and repairs on a case-by-case basis.
But China’s displeasure over this agreement is conspicuous, with the state-funded Global Times newspaper in an editorial in its August 30th issue warning New Delhi that if India hastily joins the US alliance system, it may irritate China, Pakistan and even Russia… and may not make India feel safer, but “will bring strategic troubles to itself and make itself a centre of geopolitical rivalries in Asia.”
But at the bilateral meeting, Xi and Modi agreed to work towards putting India-China ties in the “right direction” and to “respect and accommodate” each other’s concerns.
So it was the meetings on the margins of the G20 summit that made the Hangzhou summit a success. Otherwise, summits of this nature are a waste of time. Simply because top world leaders attended a summit does not make a summit great. Greatness is measured largely by the results of the proposals arising from a summit. But so far, no G20 summit has achieved such greatness. Neither are G20 decisions binding. Need we say more?
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror of Sri Lanka)

About ameenizzadeen

journalist and global justice activist
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