WASHINGTON — For more than two decades, world leaders have gathered at the Group of 20 economic summit to deliver scripted and unscripted remarks behind closed doors and try to work through their differences to reach a consensus on how to best approach pressing global challenges.
In those unseen moments, officials from rival nations with diverging interests have a shot at building relationships and diplomatic cache that every so often results in a consequential agreement that could not have been forged if dignitaries and their aides had not gathered together in one room.
At this weekend’s summit, the changing dynamics of the G20 will be in sharp relief as two of the biggest players, China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, skip the previously unmissable event. Their absence has not deterred President Joe Biden – who has been vigorously testing for COVID-19 after his wife contracted the virus – from making the long journey to India for the gathering that the U.S. is insisting has not lost its gusto.
American presidents have often seized on the forum as an opportunity to engage with authoritarian leaders and steer the outcome toward a more U.S-friendly policy agenda. But now, those same leaders are skipping the G20 as they grapple with economic problems at home and turn their attention to building out alternative multinational organizations and partnerships that they have more control over.
“For most of its history, the G20 lived up to its promise, but for it to function, the leaders of the major countries in the world have to show up,” said Daleep Singh, former deputy national security adviser for international economics to Biden. “Leadership starts with showing up, and there’s no substitute for face-to-face communication at the highest levels of government to confront the world’s biggest problems.”
Xi and Putin are sending high-ranking representatives from their governments to the gathering of the world’s largest economies and the European Union in New Delhi this weekend after expanding membership last month in an economic conglomerate of countries that are more to their liking.
“We remain committed to the G20 as a critical forum for all of the major economies of the world to come together for global problem-solving,” White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters last week, stressing that the United States is planning to host the G20 three years from now in 2026.
The last time Putin attended a G20 leaders’ summit in person was in 2019, when Donald Trump was still in office. The gathering was held virtually in 2020. Putin and Xi also participated in the 2021 Rome summit virtually amid the pandemic. Biden attended the summit in person.
A presidential priority
Biden has made international summits such as the G20 and the smaller, more U.S.-aligned Group of Seven, a cornerstone of his foreign policy, taking full advantage of the opportunity to have formal and informal conversations with U.S. allies and countries with which his administration has difficult relations at the multiday functions.
“He works the room so that there’s an element of trust, and then that trust is a form of diplomatic capital that you can trade for real things that matter to people back home. That’s his style,” Singh explained.
At last year’s gathering, on the Indonesian resort island of Bali, Biden met with his Chinese counterpart in person for the first time since the U.S. leader became president.
Although they have had no direct communication since, high-ranking members of their respective governments have traveled between the nations’ capitals, and Biden hinted at a meeting this fall with Xi, possibly at a conference for Pacific Rim countries the U.S. is hosting in November, as he expressed disappointment that the Chinese leader would not be in India.
“It would be nice to have him here, but no the summit is going well,” Biden commented on Saturday.
‘You want to have the difficult conversations’
Xi’s decision to skip the New Delhi summit comes amid an economic slump, local debt problems and a property crisis. China also faces questions about its relationship with Russia, as Putin wages war in Ukraine and seeks a potential arms deal with North Korea, and has strained relations with G20 host nation India, which has a growing economy.
If the Chinese leader is avoiding the summit to undercut the G20 as he tries to build up competitor organizations such as BRICS, which includes Russia, India, Brazil and South Africa, that would be a strategic mistake, said Josh Lipsky, a previous G20 sherpa and former adviser at the International Monetary Fund.
As for Biden, he said, “You want to have the difficult conversations with Xi at the table, because this is the best forum for you to do it, and one of the rare opportunities where it happens. And you do it in a room where you have allies sitting near you, including the rest of the G-7.
“So most everyone else in that room, including the U.S would prefer that Xi be there, and it is unfortunate that he isn’t,” Lipsky, the senior director of the Atlantic Council’s GeoEconomics Center, said. “I think it’s a net negative for the G20, and a net negative, from a U.S. perspective, on what can be achieved out of this summit.”
Biden’s pitch to fellow leaders will not change because the Chinese leader is not in attendance, Sullivan said ahead of the summit. He intends to ask countries in attendance to reform and invest in existing multilateral financial institutions such as the World Bank and IMF that loan money to developing nations, Biden’s national security adviser said.
Sullivan said the visit also provided Biden with an opportunity to reconnect with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who the U.S. president met with on Friday before the summit upon his arrival in New Delhi.
“It’s making the best of a bad job. It would be better if Xi were there,” said Robert Daly, director of the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States and a former U.S. diplomat in Beijing. “But it’s far from a total loss for the United States. It’s a chance to see all of these allies, and one of the Biden administration’s signature accomplishments has been strengthening our alliances, especially with reference to China, so he can use this meeting now to reinforce that.”
Biden has the chance at the G20 to make the case for why U.S. leadership abroad is indispensable for the world’s peace and stability and why that will pay off for American households, Singh said. He will also be able to demonstrate Russia’s isolation for its aggression in Ukraine with Putin and Xi forgoing the summit.
“The G20 is not going away,” he said. “There’s too much important work that gets done that almost nobody knows about. But the countries do. Leaders do.”