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China hosts the G20: prepare to be underwhelmed?

Reuters/Aly Song

China’s leaders like to put on a good show. Whether it’s the Olympics or the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation meeting, not losing face is paramount.

Every country likes to put its best diplomatic foot forward on such occasions, no doubt, but for China the stakes in hosting events like the forthcoming G20 Summit are very high. This is especially the case given that expectations about actual “deliverables”, as they like to call them at such events, are uniformly low.

Even the G20’s most-ardent admirers, of whom there are many in Australia, would have to concede that it really hasn’t done much. Yes, there was the Gordon-Brown-led “rescue of the global economy” in 2008 following America’s subprime crisis, but since then things have been rather quiet in G20 circles.

In the absence of a compelling existential crisis like the misnamed global financial crisis – China wasn’t really affected, nor was much of the rest of the world outside Europe and the US – it has proved disappointingly difficult for the G20 leaders to pull in the same direction.

Australia’s moment in the spotlight was no different, and Joe Hockey’s big idea – economic growth – was as underwhelming as it was underachieved. Which country isn’t looking to boost economic growth? The coming meeting is equally unlikely to address anything of substance.

That’s not to say that there isn’t much that could – and arguably should – be done.

The world’s financial institutions remain largely unreformed and as capable of plunging us all into another crisis as they were in 2008. But given China’s banking sector is now an additional source of concern in this regard, the prospects for co-ordinated international action remain as remote as ever.

Taxation is another area that the G20 – essentially an organisation for co-ordinating collective responses to common economic problems, let’s not forget – could do useful work. But it won’t, as nations cannot agree on what should be done or who is at fault.

The US, for example, has been expressing outrage at the idea that the EU might want Apple to actually pay tax on some of the massive profits it makes in tax havens like Ireland. Bizarrely, the Irish government also supports this idea, and looks likely to reject €13 billion in back taxes.

With governments bending over backwards to accommodate tax-dodging multinationals is it surprising there is no agreement on what should be done? Is it any wonder economic inequality – and the cynicism it generates about national, nevermind international, politics – is rampant?

There is even less likelihood of the sort of open-ended, free-ranging debate about policy problems occurring in China than there is just about anywhere else, with the possible exception of Saudi Arabia. This is perhaps the biggest disappointment about the G20, as the frank exchange of policy ideas and possibilities was supposed to be one of its innovative hallmarks.

In reality, there is likely to be rather a lot of set-piece posturing, protection of vital “national interests”, and the obligatory bland statement about future co-operation. Unless Barack Obama decides to throw a few metaphorical bombs on his farewell tour of a region that has been largely disappointed by his presidency.

Given a number of human rights advocates and NGOs are pressing the US government to denounce China’s recent domestic crackdown on freedom of speech, ethnic minorities, academics, lawyers and other troublesome members of civil society, he just might.

No doubt this would “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people”, as China’s rather supine press is wont to put it. But that might not be any bad thing either. If these high-level diplomatic shindigs are actually amount to anything, then a frank and fearless exchange of views might actually be productive in the long-run. This is not a latter-day incarnation of the tribute system, after all.

On the contrary, many outsiders have been disappointed by China’s recent policies at both the domestic and international levels. The forthcoming meeting is a good chance to politely but unambiguously let China’s leaders know this.

When China first began to play a more prominent role in what passes for the institutions of global governance as recently as the 1990s there were great hopes that its policymakers would be transformed by the experience. To some extent they undoubtedly have been. But there are also clear limits to this process, too.

True, China is no longer a source of destabilising revolutionary ideology, but nor is it a force for regional stability either. Getting China – and every other member of the G20, for that matter – to rise above narrow nationalist perspectives and develop a common sense of purpose is the big challenge. The G20 could be part of this process, but history suggests it probably won’t be.

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