China’s bid to show itself as a responsible and able global economic leader at the Group of 20 (G20) summit has been overshadowed by awkward bilateral issues, suggesting a bumpy road ahead for Beijing in extending its influence in the world.
From unprecedented security measures in the host city of Hangzhou to a spectacular gala performance at the scenic West Lake, China spared no effort to put on a flawless event.
The goal was to display the country as an emerging power, and to help promote the global economic agenda that President Xi Jinping has been selling to world leaders – finding the right prescription to revive economic growth as well as cross-border trade and investment.
However, as the world is not in crisis mode and China’s proposals are aimed at long-term prospects, a lot of attention at the G20 has been instead diverted to bilateral issues.
These include whether Xi and US President Barack Obama can narrow their countries’ gaping differences over the South China Sea and cybersecurity, if China and South Korea can repair ties in the wake of Seoul’s decision to deploy an anti-missile system, and whether Xi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe can ease tensions over the East China Sea.
Other issues that are stealing China’s spotlight include efforts towards peace talks to end the war in Syria and North Korea’s latest missile launch.
“The G20 leaders’ summit is a rubber stamp, endorsing agreements already reached at ministerial levels,” said Ding Yifan, a senior fellow at the Institute of World Development under the State Council’s Development Research Centre .
“It is also a good venue for bilateral exchanges on the sidelines, and many sides are trying to take advantage of this.”
China sees the danger of these distractions. The authorities have told domestic media to focus coverage on multilateral achievements at the G20 talks, and to play down troublesome bilateral issues, according to two media sources who were briefed about the guideline but who declined to be named.
Still, Xi has managed to get what he wanted from the G20 summit – at least on paper.
The final communique accepted many of the president’s proposals on how to revive the global economy, including enhanced policy coordination in fiscal, monetary and structural reform, the improvement of the multilateral trade system, strong cross-border infrastructure spending and the reform of global financial governance.
All of these measures fit nicely with China’s own domestic economic strategy, its One Belt, One Road infrastructure scheme, and the country’s desire for its currency to play a bigger role in the global monetary system.
“Every country has the right to talk about things that it cares about,” said He Maochun, an economic diplomacy researcher at Tsinghua University.
“But China, as the summit host, has to be selective.”
The Hangzhou summit was “not about security or regional disputes”, He added.
However, the broader political and economic context cannot help but affect the G20 bloc as a global governance mechanism, despite China trying hard to keep divisive issues off the table.
Tom Bernes, the former executive director with the Centre for International Governance Innovation, a think tank, said that the summit in Hangzhou was “overshadowed by the lack of political strength of most leaders of the G20”.
He pointed to the fact that Obama is leaving office in a few months, and that many European leaders are facing elections at home.
For China, its troubled relations with South Korea and its disputes over the South China Sea have already gained attention at the G20 summit.
And these issues are also sure to surface at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit, which will open in Vientiane, Laos on Tuesday – the day after the party ends in Hangzhou.
Jia Qingguo, a professor and dean at the School of International Studies at Peking University, said the South China Sea disputes and the anti-missile system would pop up in Vientiane.
“China is seeking cooperation, not confrontation, at the G20, but the ASEAN summit will be dominated by disputed issues,” he said.
Additional reporting by Kristin Huang