China, Germany step up to the plate at G-20 as US retreats

Activists wearing masks of some of the G-20 leaders demonstrating ahead of the summit's opening in the German city of Hamburg on Friday. The US is unlikely to set the direction this year, given its protectionist leader.
Activists wearing masks of some of the G-20 leaders demonstrating ahead of the summit's opening in the German city of Hamburg on Friday. The US is unlikely to set the direction this year, given its protectionist leader.PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON • The United States traditionally takes point in the search for common approaches to the big global issues of the day at the Group of 20 (G-20) summits. Not this time.

When world leaders meet in Hamburg on Friday, China and Germany will move in to usurp the US' role.

The two are being nudged into an informal alliance to pick up the leadership baton that the US is accused of having dropped since President Donald Trump's inauguration earlier this year, according to diplomats and officials from several G-20 members.

The situation has crystallised ahead of this year's annual G-20 meeting, which will be held in Germany's busiest commercial port. That is in part because, for the first time since the group's founding, the US will be represented by a President who embraces protectionism, abandoning decades of American cheerleading for free trade.

"The strategic character of Chinese-German relations is steadily gaining in importance," China's President Xi Jinping said in an op-ed article published yesterday in the German newspaper Die Welt. The two countries "should intensify cooperation on implementing China's 'One Belt, One Road' and jointly make contributions to the security, stability and prosperity of neighbouring countries".

The US was also isolated on climate change at a May summit of the smaller Group of Seven in Italy, where the final communique split six-to-one on the issue. This time, Mr Trump risks finding himself alone against a united front of European allies, its neighbours such as Canada and Mexico, and America's former Cold War foes on the two biggest summit items.

As the previous and current hosts, Mr Xi and German Chancellor Angela Merkel would in any case have worked together on the G-20 agenda. Yet three visits to Germany by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to date, the latest just last month, suggest the two nations are aligned on stepping more broadly into a space that the US has, at least temporarily, left vacant under Mr Trump's presidency.

TRUMP EFFECT

China and Germany's new closeness is something that happened because of the Trump episode. The two most important leaders in the world are President Xi and Chancellor Merkel at the moment.

MR DIEGO RAMIRO GUELAR, ambassador to Beijing for G-20 member Argentina.

"China and Germany's new closeness is something that happened because of the Trump episode," said Mr Diego Ramiro Guelar, ambassador to Beijing for G-20 member Argentina. "The two most important leaders in the world are President Xi and Chancellor Merkel at the moment."

Relations between China and Germany have been strengthening for years, driven by common economic interests and unobstructed by the kinds of geopolitical rivalries that were complicating ties between Beijing and Washington long before Mr Trump's election. Germany needs markets for its high-end industrial machinery and motor vehicles, and China wants them - so much so it bought German robotics company Kuka.

While Mr Xi will make his second state visit to Germany just before the summit, two giant pandas that China will loan to the Berlin Zoo have already arrived, a gesture sometimes called panda diplomacy.

BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 05, 2017, with the headline 'China, Germany step up to the plate at G-20 as US retreats'. Print Edition | Subscribe