The absence of key world leaders hangs over Biden’s first G-20

When the leaders of the group of 20 gathered for their family photo here on a blue-carpeted riser, there were a few unknown faces among the most powerful people on the planet.

When the leaders of the group of 20 gathered for their family photo here on a blue-carpeted riser, there were a few unknown faces among the most powerful people on the planet.

For the absent leaders of China, Russia, Japan, and Mexico, lower-level ministers were sent to their places, a bit of the lesser-known among some of the planet’s most recognizable leaders.

In some ways, this year’s G-20 summit has a sense that the world is playing its second string. Several prominent leaders stay at home instead of traveling to the Eternal City for the annual gathering.

Among those who did not attend are Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin, two counterparts that President Joe Biden is desperately hoping to personally engage in as he works to prevent already tense conditions from deteriorating further.

The given reason for Xi and Putin’s absence at the G20 – and a subsequent climate summit in Scotland starting on Monday – is the ongoing Covid pandemic. Cases are rising in Russia, and Xi has not left China for 21 months as the virus spread around the world. Visits to the G20 may also have exposed Xi to his country’s quarantine requirements, which would have made it difficult to attend an upcoming party congress.

Yet the decision to relinquish one of the world’s leading diplomatic events only fuels the feeling that Xi and Putin have become less concerned about global cooperation as their countries receive international condemnation of cyber attacks, military aggression and human rights violations. For leaders who have consolidated power dramatically, it was unlikely that their subordinates at the summits would be allowed to make important decisions along with heads of state.

The absence of Xi and Putin both helps and inhibits Biden

White House officials insist that the absence of Putin and Xi at this weekend’s conference is not, in fact, a lost cause. Instead, they suggest that the vacuum has allowed the United States and European leaders to set the agenda and engage in discussion of topics that are important to them, such as climate and the fight against the global pandemic.

Yet Western nations must work with Russia and China to make significant progress on almost all major issues under discussion at the G20 climate, Covid, an energy crisis, supply chain blockages, Iran’s nuclear ambitions. And Biden, who has expressed a preference for personal summits, has been deprived of a critical opportunity to exercise his trademark of personal diplomacy on some of the world’s most sticky puzzles.

“I think it shows to some extent their own priorities,” Ambassador Richard Haass, chairman of the Foreign Relations Council, said of Xi and Putin’s decision to only participate virtually in this weekend’s G20.

“It’s only an option if you turn it into reality,” Haass added. “Can Europeans, for example, pursue a serious policy towards China and trade and investment, or threaten them with sanctions if they use force against Taiwan? Will Europeans reduce their dependence on Russian energy? So we can talk about opportunities in general, but I think there are real questions about what we can translate into politics and reality. “

Neither Putin nor Xi are diplomatic hermits; both speak regularly with foreign colleagues, including a phone call between Biden and Xi last month and a closely monitored summit with Putin and Biden in Switzerland in June.

Both were signatories to Iran’s nuclear deal, which Biden seeks to restore, and both have attended climate summits convened this year by the White House. Russia and China have also taken a leading role in communications with the Taliban following its takeover of Afghanistan following the US withdrawal.

Yet their commitments are often selective and have not prevented them from steering their countries towards the international order.

The week before the G20, Russian warships staged a false landing in Crimea, the territory of Ukraine annexed by Moscow in 2014, and it was revealed that the Russian hackers behind a successful breach of US federal agencies in 2020 in recent months has tried to infiltrate the United States. and European government networks.

China, meanwhile, has increased military overflights into Taiwan airspace. The status of the island nation and its relationship with the United States – always a pressing issue for Beijing’s rulers – are now among the most difficult disagreements in the increasingly tense relationship between the United States and China.

Even without Xi at the summit, China has proved to be a persistent topic of conversation.

“This has been a key topic of conversation, not as a form of bloc formation or new commitment to Cold War style, but rather as dealing with a very complex challenge in a clear-cut and highly coordinated manner,” said a senior administration official. .

Sideline discussions disappear

In video remarks played at the G20 on Saturday, both Xi and Putin raised concerns about global vaccination efforts, and each complained that their countries’ shots were not recognized by international bodies. They were expected to attend practically additional sessions later in the summit, but because they do not attend in person, they will not have the opportunity to follow up on their concerns with other leaders.

Often the most substantive discussions at international summits take place in the margins of official plenary sessions, which are carefully written and rarely generate unexpected news.

On the sidelines of the G20 summit in 2016, held in China, then-President Barack Obama took Putin in a corner and asked him to “cut it out” when revelations surfaced about Russia’s massive cyber intrusion prior to that year presidential election.

At the G20 two years later, Putin found himself at a leadership dinner where he spoke to then-President Donald Trump without any staff or note holders present. At the same summit held in Buenos Aires, Trump met with Xi next door and agreed to restart stopped trade talks.

Early in his presidency, after aides arranged virtual “visits” from world leaders to mimic the import of an invitation from the White House, Biden complained that the meetings seemed stilted and lacked face-to-face warmth.

“There is no substitute, as those of you who have been covering me for a while know, for a face-to-face dialogue between leaders. None,” Biden said in June after concluding a personal summit with Putin in Geneva.

Earlier this summer, the White House had seen this weekend’s G20 as a potential venue for Biden’s first personal meeting with Xi since he became president, an important opportunity to check in as tensions escalate between Washington and Beijing. In meetings and phone calls, U.S. officials measured Chinese interest in arranging such a meeting.

However, it became clear as time went on that such a meeting would be unlikely. The White House has said no date has yet been set for a virtual meeting between Biden and Xi, though it is expected to take place before the end of the year.

“They will be able to sit as close to face to face as technology allows to see each other and spend a significant amount of time going over the full agenda,” said National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan ahead of Biden’s departure for Europe.

Such meetings will not be possible in Rome, at least with Xi or Putin. Biden had a series of informal talks with the leaders who decided to attend and met for more substantial talks with French President Emmanuel Macron to smooth out a series involving nuclear-powered submarines.

China remains the front and center

Xi’s absence has not meant that China has fallen off the agenda here; European leaders are watching closely as tensions escalate between Washington and Beijing, particularly across Taiwan.

In an interview with CNN this week, the Taiwanese president acknowledged for the first time the presence of US troops on the island for training purposes, a major development that was not well received in Beijing. When he traveled to Rome to represent Xi at the G20, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned the United States and its partners not to interfere in Taiwan’s affairs.

In their talks on Friday, Biden and Macron spent most of their time behind the scenes discussing China, a senior administration official said, calling it a “three-dimensional discussion.”

“Not like how do we get together to contain China or not, how do we start a new Cold War as allies, but rather: How do we fight the questions that China’s progress poses to democracies, to allies, to market economies?” said the official, describing the talks of the two presidents. “And how do we do that in a way that protects the interests of our country and our values ​​while at the same time not seeking confrontation or conflict?”

Asked last week if it was a mistake that Xi did not attend this year’s G20, Sullivan said he would not characterize the Chinese president’s decision-making. But he acknowledged that there was a substitute for meetings between leaders.

“In an age of intense competition between the United States and China,” Sullivan said, “intense diplomacy, diplomacy at the leadership level, is essential to effectively manage this relationship.”

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