Malcolm Turnbull

G20: China wants to take the economic lead, but will the world be an eager dance partner?

Obama has pressed his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on territorial disputes in the South China Sea. (AAP) Source: AP

By ratifying the Paris Treaty before the opening of the G20 Xi Jinping has moved to show himself to be a bold leader, and cultivate an image of China as a global power interested in more than just itself. But can it overcome its perception as a regional bully?

In the 1990s Deng Xiaoping, the statesman considered the ‘architect of modern China,’ laid out a guideline for the nation’s foreign policy, saying “keep a cool head and maintain a low profile. Never take the lead.”

More than two decades later President Xi Jinping seems to have done precisely the opposite. As host for the G20 Xi has unveiled a China determined to not only take the lead, but to do so by example.

On the eve of the summit China joined the US in ratifying the Paris agreement to cut climate-warming emissions. At a joint ceremony, Xi said it "speaks to the shared ambition and resolve of China and the United States in addressing global issues". The move was hailed as a “diplomatic milestone,” and set the stage for other nations to follow suit.

But China wants to be seen as a mover and shaker in more areas than just climate change. As president of the 2016 G20 it has an unprecedented opportunity to reshape the world development agenda, wrote analyst Ye Yu.

“It’s certainly true under Xi China’s adopted a more innovative, muscular, assertive foreign policy, and under Xi particularly there’s been an emphasis on creativity and innovation,” said former Australian ambassador to China, Geoff Raby.

This G20 takes place in the wake of Brexit, turmoil in Turkey and general subdued growth and high unemployment. In this China has tried to point to itself as an emerging stalwart of global growth. 

Speaking to a business forum on the eve of the summit President XI Jinping said China “has the confidence and has the ability” to maintain a “medium-to-high rate” of economic growth, underscoring its commitment to reducing debt and cutting industrial overcapacity.

China has also proudly brandished its Belt and Road and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) initiatives, visions designed to boost regional growth via new infrastructure.

“The central message is about working on spurring demand. To get the world to not just focus on big commercial centres like London and New York,” says Peking University’s Professor Zha Daojiong.

But for all its effort, much of China’s message, says Professor Zha, gets lost. “Folks from so many G20 countries continue to think that through all this economic talk China is simply enlarging its scope of influence, trying to get a bigger slice of the cake that is the world economy.”

As Xi warned that global “trade protectionism is rearing its head,” he called on G20 nations to work together to lower barriers to international trade and investment. Some watching criticised his words as “hollow,” pointing to China’s own red-tape.

Even before the G20 opened some had brushed off China’s economic edict as nothing more than tall-talk. And perhaps they had point. In 2015 China’s two-way trade fell by 8.0 percent, and exports were down almost as much during the first seven months of this year.

But it seems China’s problem ultimately lies not with its economic policies, but its track record when it comes to global cooperation – namely, the South China Sea. It’s not easy to convince the world that you’re in step, let alone, leading the way, when there’s that kind of geopolitical elephant in the room.

But for those in China, it comes as no surprise. “China is used to everyone just thinking about the South China Sea,” says Professor Zha.

On the sidelines of the G20 summit Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull spoke to the media, stressing that Australia’s relationship with China was “stronger than ever,” saying it shared China’s call for innovation and economic openness.

But inevitably questions turned to whether the Prime Minister raised the Hague court ruling during bilateral talks with China, since it was his first meeting with President Xi since the verdict had come out. “Should Australia be concerned about the ambitions of China, even fearful?” one journalist posed.

“There will always be points of difference, and President Xi and I respect those differences of opinion,” responded Mr. Turnbull. “There’s a tendency, if I may say so” the Prime Minister continued, “in the media and commentary to focus unduly or disproportionately on this disagreement... overall its very positive.”

Despite the focus, undue or not, on the South China Sea, China seems content to continue to treat events like the G20 as just one battle in a bigger drawn out public relations war.

“China of course wants to present itself in the best possible light. It would like to project soft power, but it can’t get away from the hard issues,” says Geoff Raby.

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