The G20: Another Step Down China's Road to Global Leadership


Up in heaven, there is paradise; down on earth, there are Suzhou and Hangzhou.” So Chinese President Xi Jinping set the tone last weekend, opening the 11th edition of the G20 Summit as the head of states and ministers of the 20 leading global economies gathered in Hangzhou.

For its first time hosting the G20, China spared no efforts to present to guests the attractiveness of the city, Xi’s own fiefdom. A quarter of its inhabitants were incentivized to leave the city to avoid traffic, while the surrounding factories were shut to ensure blue skies for the duration of the meeting. Maximal security measures were put in place, with blocked streets, endless security checks, and one to two policemen every ten meters around popular attractions.

Beijing went out of its way to impress guests, who were assisted by 1.5 million volunteers: from the Ming Dynasty style tai-shi conference chairs – “the seats for imperial grand masters”– to the stunning dance performance managed by famous director Zhang Yimou on the shores of the West Lake, Beijing fully played the soft power card.

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This charm offensive aims to send a message to the world as its eyes are focused on Hangzhou: China is more than capable of hosting an international summit. U.S. President Obama’s chaotic arrival – if intentionally planned by Beijing – also sends a strong signal: China does not need the United States; it is a legitimate power who deals with other global powers as equals.

From 1990 until recently, the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) strategy could be subsumed by Chairman Deng Xiaoping’s motto: “Hide your strength, bide your time.” The implicit idea was to avoid any international clash in order to allow China to remedy its economic, technological, and military backwardness, before being able to have its claims heard and respected. Twenty-five years later, China’s GDP has been multiplied by more than 30, and the country is the third strongest military power with a continually increasing budget.

Xi’srise to power in 2012 represented a landmark for the CPC foreign policy strategy. China started to assert itself and claim a stronger international role. By sending combat troops to UN peacekeeping operations, and by politically committing in countries such as South Sudan, Beijing began to break with the nonintervention doctrine dating from Bandung. Similarly, by heavily arming its coast guard and fishing militia, and by building artificial islands in the South China Sea, Beijing is now assuming a more assertive position toward its neighbors. Along with the 2008 Olympic Games, the 2011 BRICS summit, and the 2014 APEC summit, the Hangzhou G20 summit must be understood as part of this more assertive foreign policy push — the latest episode of Chinese “fora diplomacy,” trying to attract the attention of the international community.

Nevertheless, Beijing seems to have adopted a paradoxical strategy. On the one hand, it is claiming a seat at the current Western-led table by joining international institutions like the World Trade Organization (WTO) and by increasing its contributions to the United Nations. China’s ratification of the Paris Agreement one day before the G20 must be seen in this light.

But on the other hand, China is also contesting these institutions, and seeks to offer an alternative by proposing a more just international system. Still branding itself as a “developing country,” China champions 21st century globalization, denouncing an archaic international system based on the Bretton-Woods legacy. Beijing is calling these “obsolete” structures into question by proposing alternative ones.

The International Monetary Fund and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development facilitated a quick recovery in post-World War II Europe, flooding it with dollars via the Marshall Plan. In 2013, Beijing launched its answer, the Silk Road initiative, also known as “One Belt One Road” (OBOR). This immense project was backed by the creation of two financial international institutions: the Silk Road Fund and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), whose success would mean a significant increase in the role of Chinese currency in international payments. China has rejected the analogy likening OBOR to the Marshall Plan, but it is nevertheless another demonstration that Beijing not only denounces the international system but also creates alternative initiatives. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership versus the Trans-Pacific Partnership; OBOR versus the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership; the G20 versus the G7; China’s 16+1 mechanism with Central and Eastern Europe versus the EU —  these examples and more show China’s will to reshape the world according to its interests.

While American foreign policy has grown more isolationist, Russia remains restricted by the low cost of energy and Western sanctions, and the EU is in the middle of a soul-searching crisis, China seems to have gained the momentum in global leadership.

Yet Beijing’s ability to federate other states around the Chinese dream remains uncertain. Xi and his government are already facing a lot of criticisms, including from inside the country. The purges Xi launched under his anti-corruption campaign have exacerbated the tensions between the CPC’s rival power networks, while the pro-democracy movement gained ground in last Monday’s legislative elections in Hong Kong. Moreover, the economic slowdown as well as recurring violations of human rights threaten to alienate the population from its leaders.

But it is mostly at an international level that Beijing is facing criticism, which tends to compromise the responsible image it is trying to craft. While the “Hangzhou Consensus” call for a more opened international economy, more and more countries are accusing Beijing of subsidizing its companies to distort competition. Furthermore, the legal slap in the face that the Permanent Court of Arbitration inflicted upon Beijing last July — and more than that, Beijing’s decision not to recognize its ruling –contradict China’s claim of seeking a more just international order. The difficult modernization of the Chinese economy, along with setbacks for the the Silk Road project, which Xi has become personally engaged in, cast some doubts on China’s capability to propose a credible alternative to the current international order.

Nevertheless, the G20 summit served its purpose. It allowed Beijing to eclipse all the criticism for a time and present a more modern and dynamic face to both the Chinese people and the international community. Between 2008’s first G20 in Washington and Hangzhou’s in 2016, many things have changed. The global financial crisis and the great recession following it have considerably weakened Western countries, which China came to help. If an international summit will certainly not be enough for China to take the global leadership, Hangzhou’s G20, by presenting China as a mature and responsible power, does constitute a step toward this end.

Antoine Duquennoy is the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) Asia and China program assistant. He has previously worked for the European Institute for Asian Studies in Brussels and Le Monde in China.

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