China, Power, and the G20: 3 Takeaways from a Sinophile

Last week, the eleventh G20 summit was held in the second-tier city of Hangzhou, China. When China hosts an event, there are several key elements they stick to. Politically-angled fanfare is a priority, the strength and prosperity of China must be demonstrated, press must be prompted and managed, and the social concept of face must be maintained. China’s first opportunity to host a G20 summit comes at a crucial time with regional security concerns. There are growing tensions along maritime boundaries in Southeast Asia, the Chinese economy is not growing as robustly, and there was distinct attention at the summit paid to the global economy, the environment, and of course peace. With a G20 at-a-glance take, here are three personal “takeaways.”

When you try to control everything, some things are bound to fall through the cracks. The Chinese government managed to empty out a third of residents of a city of nearly 7 million people to present Hangzhou’s best, under-crowded face. This was achieved through what state media deemed a seven-day public holiday to keep people off the roads and out of town. Dissidents were reportedly kept under house arrest or removed. The city entrances (and this is a large city by global standards) were guarded by a vast security operation according to an article in The Guardian, which also saw foreign journalists corralled and followed through the streets of the imposed G20 ghost town.

Takeaway #1: China was taking this very seriously, and attempting to prevent any eventualities of embarrassment or controversy, even at local economic expense. It was the most significant gathering of world leaders in China’s long history. All levels of China’s authoritarian system were in-play, and if there is any remaining curiosity about how China so effectively controls their domestic populations, there are some great lessons from the articles written about this short 48-hour summit.

What did slip through the cracks was highlighted well in New York Times’ coverage by Mark Landler and Jane Perlez which many a media-frenzy referred to as a ‘planegate.’ Whether it was a reversal of Chinese agreement related to who’s rolling stairs would be used, or the more likely language barrier between Airforce One and the local Hangzhou airport employee, either way, this Sinophile is convinced it was a language, cultural, and logistical gaffe that was bound to happen to someone, and that someone happened to be President Obama.

Takeaway #2: Though China must demonstrate power and independence, as must the U.S., the passive aggressive blows that the Western media is willfully trying to make a reality seems counter-productive, and therefore, unlikely. Political gaffe? Absolutely. Political play by China? Doubtful. Xi Jinping has bigger more strategic fights to pick on more affable playing fields. American media jumped on the idea that Mr. Obama was slighted. Important to note however, that in Chinese culture, the embarrassment was all Chinese. It was a public failure in logistics, and Mr. Obama demonstrated more power by deciding to keep to his schedule and skip the pristine photo-op that China would have preferred. This was inadvertently a chance for the U.S. to show a strength of decision and purpose, and brush it off to focus on the issues of the summit.

China did however, make a grandstand that few were expecting. In an unprecedented move that by traditional diplomatic rules is a show of poor-faith, China moved more ships to a disputed reef in the South China Sea, during the G20 summit. The Spratly’s have been in the news for years now, and China has picked a fight with the U.S. and every Southeast Asian neighbor it has, over shoring up of reefs into man-made islands. China then claims the ‘islands’ and parks military bases and equipment on them in a display of aggression that has given every nation pause. The Hague’s international tribunal ruled against China’s building in the South China Sea this July. President Obama told Mr. Xi directly, in a meeting in Washington, not to start building on the Scarborough Shoal. Low and behold, China did not listen, and made their move during the summit.

Takeaway #3: This was provocative. China made a move of aggression showing international legal disregard during a G20 meeting, basically goading the U.S. and in this instance the Philippines, to stand-down. This is about military strength and is equally psychological. This is not a new problem, but it is a monumental one. One thing is certain: Xi’s government may not respond to international legal and diplomatic pressures, but they still respond to strength, and the time was three years ago.  

If anything, this week has shown that China is an authoritarian powerhouse able to host the G20 summit ultimately focused on peace, which probably strikes a chord of irony with more than a few of you. A summit of this kind has a full-plate of global issues to address. It would have been strategic of the West, and Southeast Asian nations, to bluntly and forcefully address the issues of building on reefs in the South China Sea. Unfortunately, we seem to have set a precedent of inaction on this front. Though a favorable ruling from The Hague against China is a wonderful support to have on paper, China is not playing by these traditional diplomatic rules. It hasn’t been playing by our rules for a long time. I would love to see a U.S. coalition policy towards the South China Sea that is as decisive and effective as Mr. Obama’s Hangzhou plane-exit.