Standing in for the absent heads of China, Russia, Japan and Mexico were lower-level ministers dispatched in their places, a smattering of the less-well-known among some of the globe’s most recognizable leaders.
In some ways, this year’s in-person G-20 summit has a feeling of the world playing its second string. Several prominent leaders are remaining at home instead of traveling to the Eternal City for the yearly gathering.
Among those who didn’t attend are Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin, two counterparts who President Joe Biden desperately hopes to personally engage as he works to prevent already-tense relationships from deteriorating further.
The given reason for Xi and Putin’s absences at the G20 — and a subsequent climate summit in Scotland that starts Monday — is the ongoing Covid pandemic. Cases are spiking in Russia, and Xi hasn’t left China in 21 months as the virus spread across the world. Visiting the G20 may also have subjected Xi to his country’s quarantine requirements, which would have made attending an upcoming party congress meeting difficult.
Still, the decision to forgo one of the world’s foremost diplomatic events only fuels the sense that Xi and Putin have become less concerned with global cooperation as their countries draw international condemnation for cyber attacks, military aggression and human rights abuses. For leaders who have consolidated power dramatically, it was unlikely their underlings at the summits would be authorized to make important decisions alongside heads of state.
Absence of Xi and Putin both helps and hinders Biden
White House officials insist the absence of Putin and Xi at this weekend’s conference is not, in fact, a lost opportunity. Instead, they suggest the void has allowed the United States and European leaders to set the agenda and drive discussion on topics important to them, like climate and combating the global pandemic.
Yet on nearly every major issue up for discussion at the G20 — climate, Covid, an energy crunch, supply chain clogs, Iran’s nuclear ambitions — western nations must work with Russia and China to make any significant progress. And Biden, who has voiced a preference for in-person summits, is deprived of a critical opportunity to wield his trademark brand of personal diplomacy on some of the world’s stickiest conundrums.
“I think it shows to some extent their own priorities,” said Ambassador Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, of Xi and Putin’s decision to participate only virtually in this weekend’s G20.
“It’s only an opportunity if you translate it into reality,” Haass added. “Can you get the Europeans, for example, to line up to a serious policy towards China and trade and investment or threatening them with sanctions if they use force against Taiwan? Will the Europeans reduce their dependence on Russian energy? So, we can talk in general about opportunity, but I think there’s real questions about what we can translate into policy and reality.”
Neither Putin and Xi are diplomatic recluses; both regularly speak with foreign counterparts, including a phone call between Biden and Xi last month and a closely watched summit with Putin and Biden in Switzerland in June.
Both were signatories to the Iran nuclear deal, which Biden is looking to restore, and both have participated in climate summits convened this year by the White House. Russia and China have also taken a lead role in communicating with the Taliban after its takeover of Afghanistan following the American withdrawal.
Yet their engagements are often selective and have not prevented them from steering their countries against the international order.
In the week preceding the G20, Russian warships staged a mock landing in Crimea, the territory in Ukraine annexed by Moscow in 2014, and it was revealed the Russian hackers behind a successful 2020 breach of US federal agencies have in recent months tried to infiltrate US and European government networks.
China, meanwhile, has increased military overflights into Taiwan’s airspace. The island nation’s status and its relationship to the US — always a fraught issue for Beijing’s rulers — are now among the thorniest points of disagreement in the increasingly tense US-China relationship.
Even without Xi at the summit, China has proved an enduring topic of conversation.
“This has been a central topic of conversation, not as some kind of block formation or new Cold War-style engagement, but rather as dealing with a very complex challenge in a clear-eyed and highly coordinated way,” a senior administration official said.
Sideline discussions go missing
In video remarks played at the G20 on Saturday, both Xi and Putin raised concerns about the global vaccination effort, and each complained their countries’ shots weren’t being recognized by international bodies. They were expected to participate virtually in additional sessions later in the summit, but because they are not attending in person, won’t have the chance to follow up on their concerns with fellow leaders.
Often, the most substantive discussions at international summits happen on the margins of the official plenary sessions, which are carefully scripted and rarely generate unexpected news.
On the sidelines of the G20 summit in 2016, held in China, then-President Barack Obama cornered Putin and told him to “cut it out” as revelations emerged of Russia’s massive cyber-intrusions ahead of that year’s presidential elections.
At the G20 two years later, Putin found himself during a leaders’ dinner speaking to then-President Donald Trump without any staff or notetakers present. At the same summit, held in Buenos Aires, Trump met with Xi on the side and agreed to restart stalled trade talks.
Early in his presidency, after aides arranged virtual “visits” from world leaders to mimic the import of a White House invite, Biden complained the encounters seemed stilted and lacked the warmth of 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 concluded an in-person summit with Putin in Geneva.
Early this summer, the White House had eyed this weekend’s G20 as a potential venue for Biden’s first in-person meeting with Xi since becoming President, a key opportunity to check in as tensions escalate between Washington and Beijing. In meetings and phone calls, US officials gauged Chinese interest in arranging such an encounter.
It became clear as time went on, however, that such a meeting would be unlikely. The White House has said there is still no date set for a virtual meeting between Biden and Xi, though it is expected to occur before the end of the year.
“They will be able to sit as close to face to face as technology allows to see one another and spend a significant amount of time going over the full agenda,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan said ahead of Biden’s departure to Europe.
Those types of encounters won’t be possible in Rome, at least with Xi or Putin. Biden did have a number of informal conversations with the leaders who did decide to attend and met for more substantive talks with French President Emmanuel Macron to smooth over a row involving nuclear-powered submarines.
China remains front and center
Xi’s absence hasn’t meant that China has fallen off the agenda here; European leaders are watching closely as tensions escalate between Washington and Beijing, particularly over Taiwan.
In an interview with CNN this week, Taiwan’s president acknowledged for the first time the presence of US troops on the island for training purposes, a major development that was not received well in Beijing. As he traveled to Rome to represent Xi at the G20, 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 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 get together to go contain China or not how are we going to go start a new Cold War as allies, but rather: How do we contend with the questions that China’s rise poses to democracies, to allies, to market economies?” the official said, describing the two presidents’ talks. “And how do we do that in a way that protects our country’s interests and our values while at the same time doesn’t seek confrontation or conflict?”
Asked last week if it was a mistake for Xi not to attend this year’s G20, Sullivan said he wouldn’t characterize the Chinese president’s decision making. But he acknowledged there was so substitute to meetings between leaders.
“In an era of intense competition between the US and China,” Sullivan said, “intense diplomacy, leader level diplomacy, is vital to effectively managing this relationship.”