Amid a growing polarization of the world between the United States and China, with Russia’s war against Ukraine in the background, the G20 will hold one of its most important meetings in its history of just over two decades.
Effectively, eyes will be on G2 reductionism, indicating Americans and Chinese as the actors that matter to the rest of the world. In this sense, the invasion of Vladimir Putin, Xi’s first-time ally, is just a first hot salvo in the context of the Cold War 2.0 that started in 2017.
Biden and Xi will find themselves on the sidelines of the meeting of the group of 20 largest economies in the world, formed in 1999, after ironically a succession of economic crises that culminated in the collapse of what was then Russia under Boris Yeltsin. It will be the first time the two have spoken live since Biden took over in 2021. Before, there were video conferences.
The meeting will take place in the paradisiacal Bali, Indonesian island, from Tuesday (15) to Wednesday (16). Putin was also expected, but the sequence of military setbacks on Ukrainian soil and the uneasiness of the presence among an openly anti-war audience made him withdraw from attending.
Not that the Russian question will not be present. Biden has been waving at the Kremlin, urging Kiev behind the scenes to accept the idea of a negotiation. Moscow’s announced withdrawal from the Russian-annexed capital of the Kherson region in southern Ukraine suggests several things, including the provision of a demilitarized border establishment.
Xi is the main voice in Putin’s ear, who with the retreat has shown himself to be more flexible than is usually perceived. He was not defeated militarily, but he sensed the debacle, admitting that he could not win. He saved strength and still leaves open his real intention.
The Russian is in the game for the long haul, against the West, not Ukraine itself. Xi, for his part, shares the same view, but has more immediate problems to resolve with Biden — not to mention parallel troubles, such as North Korea’s renewed nuclear assertiveness.
The main one is the economic crisis that haunts the Chinese regime. After the fall of the pandemic and the recovery of 2021, the second largest economy in the world is growing at the pace of a developed country that is not yet, at a rate of between 3% and 4% this year.
There are doubts about the solvency of the Chinese real estate market and issues related to the disruption of the country’s production chain due to the Covid zero policy adopted by Xi. More importantly, the US has declared a veritable war by setting draconian restrictions on the sale of advanced chips to the Chinese.
The semiconductor market, essential for innovation and for applications ranging from cars to fighter jets, is centered on the central island of Taiwan, which Beijing considers its own and is in full military preparation for the possibility of a takeover.
Not by chance, since the technology of the so-called chip forgings resides in Taiwan, the US increasingly raises the tone of protection of the democratic system only recently adopted by the island. It is a fight as or more politically important than the human tragedy in Ukraine.
That context, spiced up by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s untimely visit to Taipei, only makes the Biden-Xi meeting more appetizing. No supernatural announcement is expected, even involving the European war, but just the fact that the meeting has been confirmed generates a tectonic movement, already anticipated by the mutual willingness to negotiate climate issues expressed at COP27, in Egypt.
Xi has just been elevated to an unprecedented level of power in China, with his third term at the head of the communist dictatorship. But he needs the US, given its economic interdependence with the West, and vice versa. On the other hand, the fear of falling victim to a sanctions regime like the one that befell Putin is present, although it seems more likely that Beijing will double down on any bets.
Biden, on the other hand, arrives empowered for not having been torn apart in the midterm elections in the US – he celebrated this Sunday the maintenance of the majority in the Senate –, so much so that he has already hinted at his candidacy for reelection. This will keep him on the foreign policy “hawk” frequency, but boredom with the global instability of energy and food prices due to the war should be the subject of conversation.
The American will hear calls for non-interference, but he will also not relent in his military offensive against the Chinese, promoting the feeling that Beijing and its sea lanes are surrounded by the US Navy and its increasingly bellicose Quad allies (Japan, India and Australia).
Jake Sullivan, a White House national security adviser, said: “Biden sees the US and China in a tough competition, but it must not escalate into conflict or confrontation, and must be managed responsibly.”
The aide told reporters that his boss must be “totally frank and direct” in the roughly two-hour meeting with the Chinese — in which he will maintain his diplomatic approach, not try to restart relations.
Finally, there is an underlying theme: that of the G20, or G2 at the customer’s discretion, becoming a more agile version of the worn-out UN Security Council and the veto power that its five permanent members (US, UK and France) by the West, Russia and China on the other side) have.
“The future belongs to institutions like the G20”, says the director of the Unified Services Institution of India, the oldest think tank in the Asian country, General BK Sharma. He says that the Security Council failed to promote consensus in international politics, and points to other entities, such as the Brics bloc (acronym for Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa).
A similar idea has Wang Wen, the executive director of the Faculty of Finance at Renmin University in China. He argues that his country must have an additional voice in the world, even to face what he calls “demonization by the Western media”.
If much is lacking from a structural point of view, the simple fact that Biden and Xi agreed to meet in Indonesia to retrace the differences already made explicit by video suggests some possible advance in some international stability.