President Biden’s first G-20 state is marked by the absence of Russia’s Putin and China’s Xi

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Lower-level ministers, some of the lesser-known among the world’s best-known leaders, have been dispatched to the absent heads of state of China, Russia, Japan and Mexico.

Still, the decision to forego one of the world’s most important diplomatic events only reinforces the feeling that Xi and Putin are less interested in global cooperation as their countries are internationally condemned for cyber attacks, military aggression and human rights abuses. For leaders who have dramatically consolidated their power, it was unlikely that their subordinates at the summit would be empowered to make important decisions alongside the heads of state. Their absence disappointed Biden.

“The disappointment relates to the fact that Russia – not only Russia, but also China – has basically made no commitments to deal with climate change. And there is a reason people should be disappointed about it, ”Biden said at a press conference at the close of the Group of 20 Summit in Rome.

The absence of Xi and Putin both helps and hinders Biden

White House officials insist Putin and Xi’s absence from the conference this weekend is not a missed opportunity. Instead, they suggest that the void has allowed the United States and European leaders to set the agenda and fuel discussion on issues that matter to them, such as climate and fighting the global pandemic.

But on almost every major topic up for discussion at the G20 – climate, Covid, energy crisis, blockages in the supply chain, Iran’s nuclear ambitions – Western nations must work together with Russia and China to make significant progress. And Biden, who has expressed a preference for face-to-face summits, is being deprived of an important opportunity to use his trademarks of personal diplomacy on some of the world’s toughest puzzles.

“I think it shows their own priorities to a certain extent,” said Ambassador Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, of Xi and Putin’s decision to only participate virtually in the G-20 this weekend.

“It’s only a chance if you turn it into a reality,” added Haass. “For example, can you get Europeans to pursue serious China and trade and investment policies or threaten them with sanctions if they use force against Taiwan? Will Europeans reduce their dependence on Russian energy? generally about opportunities, 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 counterparts, including a phone call between Biden and Xi last month and a closely watched summit meeting with Putin and Biden in Switzerland in June.

Both were signatories to the nuclear deal with Iran, which Biden aims to restore, and both have attended the climate summits convened by the White House this year. Even after the takeover of Afghanistan after the American withdrawal, Russia and China continued to play a leading role in communicating with the Taliban.

But their engagements are often selective and have not prevented them from steering their countries against the international order.

In the week leading up to the G-20, Russian warships made a mock landing in Crimea, the territory in Ukraine annexed by Moscow in 2014, and it was revealed that the Russian hackers were behind a successful breach of US federal agencies in the year Tried to do so in 2020 infiltrating US and European government networks.

China, meanwhile, has stepped up military overflights in Taiwan’s airspace. The status of the island state and its relationship with the USA – always a sensitive issue for Beijing’s rulers – have become one of the most delicate points of contention in the increasingly tense relationship between the USA and China.

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

“This was a key topic of conversation, not as a kind of bloc formation or a new Cold War-style engagement, but rather as how to deal with a very complex challenge in a clear and highly coordinated manner,” said a senior administrator.

Foreign Minister Antony Blinken said on Sunday that his decisions will play an important role in the future of the world even if Xi is not present at diplomatic meetings.

“I think it will ultimately be up to China, currently the world’s largest emitter, to decide whether it is doing the right and important thing for its own people, but also for everyone around the world,” Blinken told CNN Dana Bash about “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 conversations are lost

In video commentary played at the G-20 on Saturday, both Xi and Putin voiced concerns about global vaccination efforts and both complained that their countries’ shots were not recognized by international bodies. They were expected to take part in additional virtual meetings later in the Summit, but as they are not present in person they do not have the opportunity to follow up on their concerns with their counterparts.

Often the most substantial discussions at international summits take place on the fringes of official plenary sessions, which are carefully crafted and rarely produce unexpected news.

On the sidelines of the 2016 G-20 summit held in China, then-President Barack Obama cornered Putin and urged him to “turn him off” as revelations about Russia’s massive cyber incursions ahead of this year’s presidential election showed up.
At the G-20 two years later, Putin found himself during a dinner of heads of state who was speaking to then-President Donald Trump without staff or notes present. At the same summit in Buenos Aires, Trump met with Xi on the side and agreed to resume stalled trade talks.

Biden spoke briefly to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during dinner on Saturday night, a person familiar with the interaction who refused to go into details.

Early in his presidency, after aides arranged virtual “visits” from world leaders to mimic the meaning of a White House invitation, Biden complained that the encounters seemed stilted and the warmth of face-to-face conversation was lacking.

“There is no substitute for face-to-face dialogue between Heads of State or Government, as those of you who have treated me for some time know.

Earlier this summer, the White House had envisaged the G-20 this weekend as a possible location for Biden’s first face-to-face meeting with Xi since taking office, an important opportunity to review how tensions between Washington and Beijing escalate. In meetings and phone calls, US officials assessed the Chinese interest in such an encounter.

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

“You will be able to sit as close together as technology allows, to see each other and spend a lot of time going through the whole agenda,” said National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan before Biden’s departure for Europe.

Such encounters will not be possible in Rome, at least with Xi or Putin. Biden had a series of informal conversations with leaders who chose to attend, and met for more in-depth discussions with French President Emmanuel Macron to settle a dispute over nuclear submarines.

China remains in front and in the center

Xi’s absence didn’t mean China fell off the agenda here; European leaders are watching closely as tensions between Washington and Beijing, particularly over Taiwan, escalate.

In an interview with CNN earlier this week, Taiwan’s president first confirmed the presence of US troops on the island for training purposes, an important development that was not well received in Beijing. When traveling to Rome to represent Xi in the G-20, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned the US 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 administrative official said, calling it a “three-dimensional discussion.”

“Not how are we going to unite to contain China or not how we are going to start a new Cold War as allies, but rather: How do we deal with the questions that China’s rise to democracies, allies, to a market economy?” Said the official and described the talks between the two presidents: “And how do we do it in such a way that we protect the interests of our country and our values ​​and at the same time do not seek confrontation or conflict?”

When asked last week whether it was a mistake by Xi not to attend this year’s G-20, Sullivan said he would not characterize the Chinese president’s decision-making. But he conceded that this could replace meetings between leaders.

“In an era of intense competition between the US and China,” said Sullivan, “intense executive diplomacy is critical to making this relationship effective.”

CNN’s Kate Sullivan and Kaitlan Collins contributed to this report.


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