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G20 to meet amid a global turn inward

Xi won’t be in New Delhi for the summit, but China is not the only country turning away from the world.

By Alex Willemyns for RFA


September 6, 2023

Students work on paintings of world leaders at an art school in Mumbai, India, on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2023, ahead of the G20 summit in New Delhi.

The Group of 20 leaders summit in New Delhi this weekend is meant to be a jubilee of economic cooperation for the industrialized world.

But some 15 years after the summit declared itself the premier forum of global economic decision-making, few anticipate major announcements this year, with the meeting taking place at a time of growing insularity in the world’s two largest economies, China and the United States.

The best hope is for a “nicely-worded – but naturally vague – statement” pledging to tackle long-standing issues like climate change and cybercrime, said Miguel Chanto, the chief economist for emerging Asia at Pantheon Macroeconomics, an independent research firm.

“I doubt there’ll be anything of substance,” he said, “reflecting the fact national governments mainly are preoccupied with domestic affairs and these types of international fora have, over the years, proven incapable of bringing about real, actionable and enforceable reform.”

Global South leadership

The summit is nonetheless a big deal in India, which has reportedly spent more than $100 million in preparations for the weekend event, which has included a nationwide propaganda campaign about India’s rising place in the world and a renewed push of Hindu nationalism.

A scrap-iron sculpture of a komodo dragon, the national animal of Indonesia, is displayed at a park in New Delhi on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2023, ahead of the G20 India summit. Sculptures of animals representing other countries can be seen in the background. Reportedly, India has spent more than $100 million in preparations for the summit. (Arun Sankar/AFP)

But Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has traveled only to Russia and South Africa this year, won’t be there, with China’s premier, Li Qiang, attending in his stead amid icy ties with the United States and allies like Japan, which Beijing chided for releasing treated nuclear wastewater.

U.S. President Joe Biden last weekend said he was “disappointed” he would not get to see Xi face-to-face at the meeting, before adding that he was still “going to get to see him,” without any explanation.

Amid a stumbling Chinese economy made worse by last week’s announcement of a record US$6.7 billion loss by real estate giant Country Garden, Xi has enough reasons to stay away from New Delhi, especially while India is burnishing its credentials as an alternative economy to China.

“China’s position at the G20, and these kinds of global forums, is undermined,” said Suisheng Zhao, director of the Center for China-U.S. Cooperation at the University of Denver. “They are competing to be the leader of the Global South, and China now does not have money.”

“Even with the Belt and Road Initiative, everything has been undermined by the economic difficulties,” he said. “China's so-called ‘China model of economic growth’ and the superiority of China's model of authoritarian state capitalism is now all in question.”

U.S. protectionism

But Xi will lose little sleep contemplating Biden or any other leader launching a major new economic initiative at New Delhi.

A construction site of residential buildings by Chinese developer Country Garden is pictured in Tianjin, China, Aug. 18, 2023. China’s sputtering economy was hit by last week’s announcement of a record US$6.7 billion loss by Country Garden. (Tingshu Wang/Reuters)

The United States, after all, has also largely turned inward since Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign upended bipartisan agreement on free-trade, with both U.S. parties now actively shunning it.

Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said on Tuesday that the principal U.S. objective at this year’s G20 will be increasing funding to the World Bank to help it counterbalance China’s Belt and Road Initiative by lending money to smaller economies.

But Biden’s reluctance to consider returning to free-trade has been openly criticized by U.S. allies, including Australia, which has said that the United States can’t beat Chinese influence without offering the world what it most wants: access to the globe’s largest economy.

Under Biden, the Obama administration’s Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was repurposed by Tokyo into a free-trade pact without the United States, has been nixed in favor of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, which seeks to streamline, not remove, trade barriers.

That puts American officials on the backfoot at forums like the G20, where foreign leaders show little interest in almost any other initiatives.

“It’s hard to find anybody who’s enthused about the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, because nobody really understands what’s in it or what it does,” said Gregory Poling, the director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“What the region wants is free trade and market access,” he said, “and that’s the one thing the administration is not willing to give.”

A blip

Zhao noted that in the absence of China and the United States showing leadership at the G20 summit this year, and a global system increasingly with “no hegemon,” little can be expected other than perfunctory statements on the Ukraine war and climate change.

India, while intent on hosting an extravaganza, also does not yet have the economic heft to compete with China for influence in the Global South.

Rekha Devi, a 30-year-old farm worker, washes her face next to her temporary shelter on an under construction overpass after her family evacuated the flooded banks of the Yamuna River in New Delhi, India, Aug. 9, 2023. July's record monsoon rains triggered flooding that killed more than 100 people in northern India, displaced thousands and inundated large parts of the capital city. Little of substance on climate change is expected from the G20 Summit, says one analyst. (Altaf Qadri/AP)

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s absence from the summit, meanwhile, barely registers in headlines given the domestic issues he faces as the invasion of Ukraine drags on beyond a year and a half.

And for Xi, the hope is that the rippling economic effects of the pandemic only curtail its global influence for a little while longer.

“China’s economy has not recovered from COVID as the Chinese government expected and growth has slowed. Addressing this is now the Chinese government’s top priority,” said Susan Thornton, a senior fellow at Yale University’s Paul Tsai China Center who served as acting U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asia in 2017 and 2018.

But “China remains a major economic player, manufacturing powerhouse and number one global trader,” she said, “so it is early to say that China’s influence in this area will diminish.”

For the United States, New Delhi might provide the opportunity for some gloating in the face of a relatively stronger economic position, but it won’t hide from the world its refusals to play ball on free trade.

“Biden can tell a good story, particularly in a slowing Chinese economy,” said Poling, but “the lack of a proactive U.S. trade policy carries the headlines, no matter what other initiatives they launch.”


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