Day One of the G20 and some unusual observations
The highlight of the G20 must be a 3-hour meeting between President Xi and President Biden but there were a few other important points to take away first.
To be honest, there weren’t too many surprises, the fact that Putin elected not to come was one. It’s clear, in my opinion, what will happen when his representative Sergey Lavrov presents his final speech, there will be a public walkout. This would have been an embarrassment to Putin, as the leader, but when it happens to his representative, it can be written off as just bad manners. We are watching a summit meeting of most of the leaders of the “International Community”. There’s a stronger anti-Russia sentiment in Bali than there will be in the upcoming APEC meeting in Thailand.
In an interesting development, with Russian media stating nothing happened, Several media outlets carried an AP story of Lavrov being hospitalised for a check-up. So, depending on who you ask, Lavrov either did or didn’t have a visit to the hospital. One question no one is asking is whether or not there’s a Russian doctor in the delegation. There are no images of him leaving the hotel to go to the hospital, no images of him at the hospital and only unnamed sources have confirmed the story. A healthy dose of skepticism needs to be maintained when reading anything related to Russia right now.
The real story of the day was the meeting between the two major leaders of the USA and China. And there are a couple of interesting takes to read into this: one is that Biden sought the meeting, Xi agreed to it; another is that the meeting took place in the Chinese delegation’s residence not the US and not in a meeting room at the G20 venue. These are significant indications of a normalizing of the relationship. What’s really significant is that, in all the videos circulating the internet, Xi waited for Biden to approach him and shook the hand quite quickly. Some observers are pointing out that a two handed shake, which Biden gave to Xi, has a different meaning to Chinese people. When shaking hands with the boss after he’s given you a pay rise, or taken you out for a great meal, it’s common to use the two-handed shake but in business, a lot less so. Touching in body language such as this is not widely accepted and can be seen as supplicant. Chinese people like what they saw. Westerners don’t. Biden appeared to show anxiety according to some experts.
Like an alcoholic or drug addict reaches rock bottom and says: no more. It’s hard to deny the China US relationship is low but has it bottomed-out yet to a point where recovery can begin?
The answer is quite complicated. In the meeting Xi itemised several areas of cooperation or, as he called them, “three layers of common interest”. Avoiding conflict, cooperation in mutual development and of course, Covid recovery. It’s hard to argue that these three things would, or should, be uppermost in the minds of any leader.
Biden’s press conference afterwards came with the greatest indicator of the entire event that there is a thaw: “I do not think that there’s any imminent attempt on the part of China to invade Taiwan”. It’s hard to imagine a more forthright comment than that and, as the Commander in Chief of all US military forces, he’s now put his own military on notice that they can, if not stand-down, at least ease-up on the level of readiness they seem so willing to adopt. Only a month ago, US Navy Admiral, Mike Gilday stated China “could invade Taiwan by the end of the year”. During the same week, his Secretary of State Blinken issued a warning that China was pursuing unification on a “much faster timeline”.
All this rhetoric may help win elections, or as we noticed, improve the results of the mid-terms, but they don’t help global peace or promote Xi’s three layers of communication.
What is most worrying is not what Biden says, it’s what his Administration and State Department need to “walk-back” after he says it. In May of this year, the Secretary of State needed to walk-back Biden’s comment that Putin “cannot stay in power”. Also in May of this year, the White house for the third time in just 12 months walked-back yet another of Biden’s comment that the US will respond militarily to aid Taiwan.
One thing is clear about Biden’s latest statement, whether it was on script or off script, neither the White House nor the Secretary of State will walk it back. The only question is: do they privately support it and did Biden actually mean what he said; this is not always something we can be sure of.
When the two leaders met online in November 2021, the White House press release talked of America’s rules, keeping communication open and the importance of substantive and concrete conversations. Then, one month later signed a Bill banning any item that may, and even many items that could not be proven not to have originated in Xinjiang.
It wasn’t the first time a meeting full of confidence and optimism had been followed by disappointment. Biden and Xi held telephone conversations in both February and September of last year. Each time, mutual cooperation was discussed and each time promises of further dialogue ended the conversation. But each time there was some provocative action shortly afterwards to demonstrate that, no matter what the President says the US intentions are, the government he supposedly represents have different ideas.
Since Biden came to office, we’ve seen several pieces of legislation such as the America Competes Act, the United States Innovation and Competition Act and the CHIPS for America Act, passed by Senate or signed into law by the President and there are a staggering 5,033 items of legislation or resolutions which are Anti-China in nature which exist in the House right now. We’ve also seen an ill-advised visit by Pelosi. So, we know that US intentions and US actions don’t always marry up. In the case of the G20, we can always hope that this is a starting point for an upward journey because for sure, what happens next will either see improvements, which are positive for the global community and, let’s be clear that’s what G20 is supposed to be. Or, we’ll see rock bottom being hit and only the doom-sayers want that.