The official agendas of G20 summits are normally more or less standard. Since the financial crisis of 2008, the meetings have been dominated by coordinating the measures to support global growth and stabilize financial markets. A G20 top level meeting is always an opportunity for world leaders to meet each other. The bilateral meetings dominated this summit to reflect global trends and illustrate how much political clout each participant has in the contemporary world.
During the summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin met half of all participants after eight bilateral talks and the sideline 5-party BRICS meeting. Thus, the Russian president met 11 out of 19 leaders of state and government of the G20 members and the president of Egypt – one of 8 invited guests. Mr. Putin had also had talks with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Park Geun-hye, the President of South Korea, at the Eastern Economic Forum held in the Russian city of Vladivostok on September 2-3 on the eve the Hangzhou event (September 4-5).
He did not have an official meeting with only six G20 members (excluding eye-to-eye backstage meetings), including the leaders of Australia, Italy, Canada, Indonesia, Mexico and the EU. But Jean Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi met the Russian president at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum that took place in June.
Mr. Putin met Indonesian President Joko Widodo in May at the Association of South-East Nations summit held in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi. It leaves out only three leaders. The prime ministers of Canada and Australia seem to be the only ones to remember about the idea of «Russia’s isolation» which became a thing of the past a long time ago. The recent G20 summit provided ample evidence to the fact.
Instead of Russian leader’s isolation, it was the US president who was haunted by problems began as soon as he landed in China with no stairs waiting for him to emerge from his usual door at the front of Air Force One and the following flare-ups and simmering tensions throughout the visit. President Obama had nothing to do but play down the «snub» which reflects how frayed and fraught with frustration the US-Chinese relationship has become.
The US leader will be remembered for making foreign policy blunders. Actually, the «snub» was expected after he told CNN just before the G20 summit that Beijing had to recognize that «with increasing power comes increasing responsibilities.» «If you sign a treaty that calls for international arbitration around maritime issues, the fact that you're bigger than the Philippines or Vietnam or other countries … is not a reason for you to go around and flex your muscles», Obama said in a clear warning to China.
«You've got to abide by international law», he said evidently to soften the message, but the remark was perceived as a threat.
Chinese President Xi Jinping told his South Korean counterpart that China opposes the US deployment of the THAAD anti-missile system in South Korea.
China and Russia should firmly support each other's efforts to safeguard sovereignty, security and development interests, President Xi Jinping told Russian President Vladimir Putin at the summit. He evidently meant the United States.
China, a signatory to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, recently lost an arbitration dispute over the South China Sea. A court in The Hague found China had no historic title over the waters of the South China Sea and had infringed on the rights of the Philippines. Beijing has rejected the ruling. Russia doesn't necessarily backs Chinese claims, but supports China’s stance on the South China Sea court dispute and opposes any third-party interference.
According to the Russian president, China has a right not to recognize the court’s ruling. «Any arbitration proceedings should be initiated by parties to a dispute while a court of arbitration should hear the arguments and positions of the parties to the dispute. As is known, China did not go to the Hague Court of Arbitration and no one there listened to its position. So, how can these rulings possibly be deemed fair? We support China’s position on the issue», Mr. Putin explained.
He also noted that «The intervention of third-party non-regional powers, in my opinion, is harmful and counterproductive».
Moscow and Beijing don’t recognize the right of Washington to meddle into their relationships with neighbors and the disputes the US has no relation to. The situation in Ukraine and the South China Sea territorial dispute have a lot in common. The US sticks to the policy of containment towards Russia and China. The goal is to prevent these countries from restoring their clout in the areas of vital interests – Russia in the post-Soviet space and China in South East Asia. In Europe, the US uses the EU as an instrument to exert pressure against Russia. In Asia, Washington tries to take advantage of the contradictions between China and its neighbors.
The words of the Chinese president about the need to firmly support each other's efforts to safeguard sovereignty, security and development interests signal closer coordination of Russian and Chinese efforts to counter the American pressure. It takes place against the background of Russia-China joint naval exercises to take place in the South China Sea.
The Russia’s Pacific Fleet will dispatch a number of surface warships to the South China Sea to participate in the annual Sino-Russian naval exercise, dubbed Joint Sea 2016, held from September 11 to 19.
China and Russia have held six joint naval drills since 2005, with Beijing first assuming the role of host for the Joint Sea exercise in 2012. In 2015, both countries held naval and amphibious assault exercises in the Sea of Japan, a smaller naval drill in the Mediterranean, among a number of other bilateral military exchanges. Both countries have also participated in trilateral and multilateral exercises, for example, under the umbrella of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
The Russia-China rapprochement is a real nightmare for Washington. America was sure the relationship will not last long, but it miscalculated. The Obama administration has refocused from the Middle East to the Asia Pacific region only to be countered by the two leading nations united by the desire to protect their sovereignty and resist outside pressure.
Moscow is back in the Middle East. Its clout in the region is growing as many regional powers get frustrated with the US policy. The United States has to coordinate its activities in the region with Russia after the plans to «punish» Moscow in Europe have been stymied and the US clout in Europe started to wane too.
In the Pacific the US does take advantage of the China-Japan contradictions and the fear that some China’s neighbors may feel as the Chinese economic and military might is growing. But it does not make all Pacific states US allies.
Russia has reinvigorated a dialogue with Japan and South Korea. Sooner or later, it will make them less dependent of the United States.
This G20 event was the last big summit for the US president before he leaves in January. Before his tenure is over, Mr. Obama is scheduled to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meetings in Lima, Peru, slated for November 19–20, 2016. This year the event will boast a high level representation to include half of the G20 member states. The Pacific summit will have symbolic significance for the US president – the author of «Asia pivot» concept aimed at boosting the American power in the region and containing China. As the second term nears the end, it becomes clear the plans have been hopelessly stymied.
It’s an open secret that as a lame duck the US president will hardly be in the focus of the upcoming Lima event. He will not be in the position to lead the decision making process. A new US president will be elected ten days before the Lima summit kicks off.
The G20 meeting was the last forum where he could achieve a foreign policy success, for instance an agreement with Russia on Syria. It would have been very important for him, but Mr. Obama failed. The US Syria policy in tatters is the legacy a new US president will inherit. No hopes are pinned on President Obama anymore.
Being a Nobel Peace Prize winner, Mr. Obama has failed to turn the tide and make the US as strong as it once was. Will a new US president be able to turn the 21st century into a truly «American» century in the same way the 20th century was? Given the way things have played out over the last several years, it’s hard to bet on it. To put it mildly, such a prediction looks to be on shaky ground, especially after the Hangzhou event.