The absent heads of China, Russia, Japan and Mexico were replaced by lower-level ministers sent in their places, a few lesser-known among some of the world’s most recognizable leaders.
Still, the decision to forgo one of the world’s most important diplomatic events only fuels a sense that Xi and Putin have become less concerned about global cooperation as their countries are internationally condemned for cyber-attacks, military aggression and human rights abuses. For leaders who have dramatically consolidated power, it was unlikely that their top subordinates would be empowered to make major decisions alongside heads of state. Their absence disappointed Biden.
“The disappointment relates to the fact that Russia — not just Russia but China — actually failed to show up in terms of pledges to tackle climate change. And there’s a reason people should be disappointed in that,” Biden said. at a press conference as the Group of 20 summit concluded in Rome.
Absence of Xi and Putin helps and hinders Biden
White House officials insist that Putin and Xi’s absence from this weekend’s conference is in fact not a missed opportunity. Instead, they suggest that the void has enabled leaders of the United States and Europe to set the agenda and spark discussion on topics that matter to them, such as the climate and fighting the global pandemic.
“I think to some extent it shows their own priorities,” Ambassador Richard Haass, the chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations, said of Xi and Putin’s decision to only participate virtually in the G-20 of this weekend.
“It’s only an opportunity if you translate it into reality,” Haass added. “For example, can you get Europeans to take serious policies 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? Then we can talk in generally about opportunities, but I think there are real questions about what we can translate into policy and reality.”
Neither Putin nor Xi are diplomatic recluses; both speak regularly with foreign counterparts, including a phone call between Biden and Xi last month and a close summit with Putin and Biden in Switzerland in June.
Both were signatories to the Iran nuclear deal, which Biden wants to restore, and both participated in climate summits convened by the White House this year. Russia and China have also played a leading role in communicating with the Taliban following its takeover of Afghanistan after the US withdrawal.
Yet their commitments are often selective and have not prevented them from sending their country against the international order.
In the week leading up to the G-20, Russian warships made a mock landing in Crimea, the area of Ukraine annexed by Moscow in 2014, and it was revealed that the Russian hackers behind a successful 2020 breach of US federal agencies have been spent months trying to infiltrate US and European government networks.
China, meanwhile, has increased the number of military flights to Taiwan’s airspace. The status of the island and its relationship with the US – always a fraught issue for Beijing’s rulers – are now one of the most thorny points of contention in the increasingly tense US-China relationship.
Even without Xi at the summit, China has proved to be an enduring topic of conversation.
“This has been a central topic of conversation, not as some sort of Cold War-style bloc or new engagement, but rather as dealing with a very complex challenge in a clear and highly coordinated manner,” said a senior government official. .
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Sunday that even if Xi is absent from diplomatic meetings, his decisions will play an important role for the future of the world.
“I think it’s ultimately up to China, which is now the largest emitter in the world, to decide whether it’s going to do the right thing and important for its own people, but also for everyone around the world,” Blinken told CNNs. Dana Bash on ‘State of the Union’.
Blinken added: “Beijing will have to decide whether it will live up to its responsibilities, starting with its own people who are directly affected by climate change.”
Side discussions disappear
In video remarks played at the G-20 on Saturday, both Xi and Putin expressed concern about global vaccination efforts, each complaining that their country’s shots were not recognized by international bodies. They were expected to participate virtually in additional sessions later on at the summit, but as they will not attend in person, they will not have the opportunity to follow up on their concerns with fellow leaders.
Often the most substantive discussions at international summits take place on the sidelines of the official plenary sessions, which are carefully scripted and rarely deliver unexpected news.
Biden briefly spoke to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov over dinner Saturday night, according to a person familiar with the interaction and declined to go into detail.
Early in his presidency, after aides arranged virtual “visits” by world leaders to mimic the import of a White House invitation, Biden complained that the meetings seemed pompous and lacked the warmth of a face-to-face.
“There is no substitute, as those of you who have followed me for a while know, for face-to-face dialogue between leaders. None,” Biden said in June after a personal summit with Putin in Geneva.
Early this summer, the White House had seen this weekend’s G-20 as a potential venue for Biden’s first face-to-face meeting with Xi since becoming president, a key opportunity to check in as tensions between Washington and Beijing escalate. In meetings and phone calls, US officials gauged Chinese interest in arranging such a meeting.
Over time, however, it became clear that such a meeting would be unlikely. The White House has said a date has still not been set for a virtual meeting between Biden and Xi, although it is expected to take place before the end of the year.
“They will be able to sit as close together as technology allows to see each other and spend a significant amount of time discussing the full agenda,” National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said ahead of Biden’s departure to Europe.
China remains leading and central
In an interview with CNN this week, Taiwan’s president for the first time acknowledged the presence of US troops on the island for training purposes, an important development that was not well received in Beijing. When he traveled to Rome to represent Xi at the G-20, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned the US and its partners not to meddle in Taiwan’s affairs.
During their talks on Friday, Biden and Macron spent most of their behind-the-scenes time discussing China, a senior government official said, calling it a “three-dimensional discussion”.
“Not like how are we going to come together to contain China or not, how are we going to start a new Cold War as allies, but rather how are we going to deal with the questions China’s rise poses for democracies, for allies, for allies? market economies?” the official said, describing the conversations of the two presidents. “And how do we do that in a way that protects our country’s interests and values, while not seeking confrontation or conflict?”
When asked last week whether it was a mistake for Xi not to attend this year’s G-20, Sullivan said he would not characterize the Chinese president’s decision-making. But he recognized that meetings between leaders were such a replacement.
“In an era of intense competition between the US and China,” Sullivan said, “intense diplomacy, leadership-level diplomacy, is vital to effectively manage this relationship.”
Kate Sullivan and Kaitlan Collins of CNN contributed to this report.