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Absence of key world leaders weighs on Biden’s first G-20


To replace absent leaders from China, Russia, Japan and Mexico, lower-level ministers have been sent in their place, a handful of lesser-known among some of the world’s most recognizable leaders.

Yet the decision to forgo one of the world’s most important diplomatic events only fuels the feeling that Xi and Putin have become less concerned about global cooperation as their countries draw international condemnation of cyber attacks, assaults. military and human rights violations. For leaders who have significantly consolidated power, their subordinates at the summits were unlikely to be allowed to make important decisions alongside heads of state.

Xi and Putin’s absence helps and hinders both Biden

White House officials insist that Putin and Xi’s absence from this weekend’s conference is not, in fact, a wasted opportunity. Instead, they suggest the vacuum has allowed the United States and European leaders to set the agenda and lead discussions on topics important to them, like the climate and tackling the global pandemic.

Yet on almost every major issue under discussion at the G20 – climate, Covid, energy crisis, supply chain bottlenecks, Iran’s nuclear ambitions – Western countries must work with Russia and China to make progress. significant. And Biden, who has expressed a preference for summits in person, is deprived of a crucial opportunity to exert his trademark mark of personal diplomacy on some of the world’s most difficult puzzles.

“I think this shows their own priorities to some extent,” Ambassador Richard Haass, chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations, said of Xi and Putin’s decision to only participate virtually in this weekend’s G20. end.

“It’s only an opportunity if you translate it into reality,” Haass added. “Can you, for example, get the Europeans to align themselves with a serious policy towards China, trade and investment or threaten them with sanctions if they use force against Taiwan? Will Europeans reduce their dependence on Russian energy? So we can talk in general about the opportunities, but I think there are real questions about what we can translate into policies and into reality. “

Neither Putin nor Xi are diplomatic recluses; both speak regularly with their foreign counterparts, most notably during a phone call between Biden and Xi last month and during a closely watched summit with Putin and Biden in Switzerland in June.

Both were signatories to the Iran nuclear deal, which Biden seeks to restore, and both participated in climate summits called this year by the White House. Russia and China also played a leading role in communicating with the Taliban after they took control of Afghanistan following the US withdrawal.

Yet their commitments are often selective and have not prevented them from leading their countries against the international order.

In the week leading up to the G20, Russian warships staged a mock landing in Crimea, the Ukrainian territory annexed by Moscow in 2014, and it was revealed that Russian hackers behind a successful breach in 2020 US federal agencies have attempted to infiltrate the United States in recent months. and European government networks.

China, meanwhile, has increased military overflights in Taiwan’s airspace. The status of the island nation and its relationship with the United States – always a delicate issue for Beijing’s leaders – are now among the thorniest points of contention in the increasingly strained relations between the United States and the United States. China.

Even without Xi at the top, China has proven to be an enduring topic of conversation.

“This has been a central topic of conversation, not as some sort of bloc formation or a new Cold War style engagement, but rather as a way of dealing with a very complex challenge in a lucid and highly coordinated manner,” he said. said a senior administration official. .

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Sunday that even if Xi was absent from diplomatic meetings, his decisions would play an important role in the future of the globe.

“I think it will ultimately be up to China, which is currently the world’s largest emitter, to decide whether it is going to do the right and important thing for its own people, but also for everyone in the world. “Blinken told CNN. Dana Bash on “State of the Union”.

Blinken added: “Beijing is going to have to decide whether it is going to shoulder its responsibilities by starting with its own people who are directly affected by climate change.”

Discussions on the fringes disappear

In video remarks released to the G20 on Saturday, Xi and Putin expressed concerns about the global immunization effort, and each complained that their country’s shots were not recognized by international bodies. They were expected to attend additional sessions virtually later in the summit, but because they are not attending in person, they will not have the opportunity to follow up on their concerns with their fellow leaders.

Often the most important discussions at international summits take place on the sidelines of formal plenary sessions, which are carefully scripted and rarely generate unexpected news.

On the sidelines of the G20 summit in 2016, which was held in China, then-President Barack Obama cornered Putin and told him to “take his breath away” as revelations surfaced about cybercriminals. massive intrusions by Russia ahead of the presidential elections that year.
At the G20 two years later, Putin found himself at a leaders’ dinner meeting with then-President Donald Trump, without staff or note takers present. At the same summit, held in Buenos Aires, Trump met with Xi by his side and agreed to resume stalled trade talks.

Early in his presidency, after aides organized world leaders’ virtual “tours” to mimic the import of an invitation to the White House, Biden complained that the meetings seemed stilted and lacked the warmth of it. ‘a face-to-face.

“There is no substitute, as those of you who have covered me for a while know, for a face-to-face dialogue between leaders. None,” Biden said in June after concluding a summit in person with Poutine in Geneva.

Earlier this summer, the White House had envisioned this weekend’s G20 as a potential venue for Biden’s first face-to-face meeting with Xi since becoming president, a key opportunity to verify as tensions intensify between Washington and Beijing. In meetings and phone calls, US officials assessed Chinese interest in hosting such a meeting.

However, it became clear over time that such a meeting would be unlikely. The White House said there is still no date 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 as possible face to face as technology allows to see each other and spend a lot of time reviewing the whole agenda,” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said before the departure from Biden for Europe.

This kind of meeting will not be possible in Rome, at least with Xi or Putin. Biden had a number of informal conversations with the leaders who decided to attend and met for more substantive talks with French President Emmanuel Macron to iron out an argument involving nuclear-powered submarines.

China remains in the foreground

Xi’s absence hasn’t meant that China is no longer on the agenda here; EU leaders are closely monitoring escalating tensions between Washington and Beijing, particularly over Taiwan.

In an interview with CNN this week, the Taiwanese president first acknowledged the presence of US troops on the island for training purposes, a major development that has not been well received in Beijing. While traveling to Rome to represent Xi at the G20, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned the United States and its partners not to interfere in Taiwan’s affairs.

During their talks on Friday, Biden and Macron spent the most time behind the scenes discussing China, a senior administration 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 to deal with the questions that the rise of China poses for democracies, for allies , to market economies? “said the official, describing the talks between the two presidents.” And how do we do it in a way that protects the interests of our country and our values ​​while not seeking confrontation or conflict? “

When asked last week if it was a mistake for Xi not to attend this year’s G20, Sullivan said he would not characterize the Chinese president’s decision-making. But he recognized that it was therefore necessary to replace meetings between leaders.

“In an era of intense competition between the United States and China,” said Sullivan, “intense diplomacy, diplomacy at the leadership level, is vital to effectively manage this relationship.”

CNN’s Kate Sullivan contributed to this report.