G 20 summits succeed when they have a single and intelligible message – the May 2009 summit at the tail end of the global financial crisis was the best example of this. They fail when a unity of purpose cannot be found on the issue of the day. Never mind the fine print – intentions painstakingly negotiated between sherpas for the summit, but which often lack enforcement.
This summit is set up as a public contest between the world’s three most influential figures: Donald Trump, who is acting as a lightning rod for discontent since he publicly disavows multilateral actions; Xi Jinping, who proclaims China ready for global leadership while failing to explain in any way what that leadership would consist of; and Angela Merkel, informal leader of the European Union, whose skill in balancing will be scrutinized.
The expectation is that Donald Trump will be cornered and defeated, while Xi Jinping will emerge as a born again progressive internationalist, following his recent re-commitment to the Paris climate agreement in contrast with Trump's reneging. Ms Merkel is seen as the clear-sighted umpire who will declare the defeat of the nefarious Trump.
That scenario is far from reality. It reflects mostly the narcissism of Western commentators who are focused on their own politics – and their hatred of Donald Trump – while overlooking the other actors.
Yes, Angela Merkel has helped Xi Jinping's image, inaugurating the Berlin zoo pandas with him, while her officials have pronounced China-Germany relations to be at a high point. And she clearly chastises Donald Trump over his climate policy and his rambling threats of protectionism – including against Germany. But she has also spoken quicker and louder than any European leader (or Donald Trump, for that matter) on two issues: Beijing's treatment of dissident and Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, currently close to death under guard; and also China’s condescending attitude to Europe, particularly over unequal trading conditions. As for new French president Emmanuel Macron, he has been proposing to the European Union a form of investment screening against threats to national security and intellectual property that has Ms Merkel’s quiet backing – and China is clearly the main object of the project.
Most of all, the expectations ignore China itself. To Xi Jinping, relations with the US are paramount – whether they escalate into various degrees of conflict, or whether they return to the normal median – China advances in the main and the US complains ineffectively on the margin. A soft power victory is enjoyable for Xi Jinping, with Western pundits ignoring the inconvenient and long-lasting truths about China in order to focus on the current US president. But it is not worth any concession – to Europe that is.
Two recent and publicly undisclosed events will serve as examples. In the lead up to the EU-China summit on June 2 in Brussels, Chinese negotiators and the Chinese prime minister himself seemed amenable to compromise on the thorny trade and investment issues that have prevented China from gaining market economy status. After years of paralysis, China seemed ready to concede an EU-China investment agreement that would surely include better access for European firms in China. At the last moment during the summit, the Chinese concessions were withdrawn without any explanation, and China also refused to co-sign a statement on climate policy. The same reversal had happened one day before in Berlin meetings between the Chinese and German goverments. In fact, on both occasions China’s government seemed to be superseded by a hidden but stronger authority – it is not too difficult to guess what that force was, given the extraordinary amount of personal power gathered by President Xi.
That this was no accident is confirmed by early news from the G 20: China has made it known that it will not co-sign any declaration (climate or otherwise) that 'isolates' one of the parties to the G 20. Extraordinarily, it seems that China is now reaching out to America to prevent it being castigated at a global summit.
The China-EU-US triangle is not what most commentators think it is. Europe’s balancing act – leveraging the US on trade issues with China while leveraging China with the US on global policies such as climate – does not work, except for media purposes. This is because China refuses to play the game, or rather plays it very differently.
Beijing happily collects the public diplomacy benefits of Western dissensions, with Europe heaping praise on Xi Jinping to better underline Donald Trump’s uncouth manners. But China will still prioritize outcomes with the US, especially to prevent strong measures on trade. It has understood Donald Trump’s sensitivity and therefore goes out of its way to avoid antagonizing him publicly, therefore not joining the wailing over Trump. And although it has flashed a more open card at the European Union, that card has been quickly withdrawn. Were things to get nastier with the US, there would still be time to return to the open attitude displayed by the Chinese government in the weeks preceding the EU-China summit.
The above examples are only about trade and climate negotiations. Arguably, that’s not the strategic heights of international relations. But trade issues are the bulk of the actual EU-China relationship, and climate politics are perhaps Europe’s signature item in international affairs. On hard power issues, Europeans alone are a negligible global force, given the lack of common purpose and coordination.
The US is clearly paying a price in public diplomacy with Europe, and perhaps in substantial negotiating agreements, for its current unpredictability and lack of a coherent design. But the game with China is only beginning. Europeans who think glib posturing with China is enough to get results, and who don’t understand that US-China game, risk disappointment.
An almost totally ignored feature of current global relations is in fact more important and significant for Europe. With Japan finally coming to terms with the European Union on a free trade agreement that effectively creates the world’s largest free trade area, the Europeans and Japanese are in fact sending a concrete signal to both Donald Trump and Xi Jinping: protectionist postures by the US will not prevent other free market economies from moving ahead on the trade agenda, and China is not left free to pursue its mercantilist and bilateral ambitions with countries over which it now has trade dominance.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.