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Order from Chaos

China’s G-20 presidency: Where geopolitics meets global governance

Bruce Jones

For the past several years, international affairs have been analyzed through two lenses. One lens has focused on geopolitics: in particular, the question of how great power relations are evolving at a time of redistribution in the world’s economic and now also political power. The second lens considers the framework of global governance, especially the question of whether or not the existing formal and informal institutions have the tools and the ability to manage complex global challenges.

China’s presidency of the G-20 bridges the issues of global governance and great power relations. At a basic level, the G-20 will set a tone for how major powers attempt to tackle the challenges that confront us all.

China’s assumption of the G-20 chairmanship in 2016 marks an important symbolic threshold. It is the first time a major non-Western power will chair the world’s premier body for international economic cooperation—not to mention one of the world’s most important geopolitical bodies, as well. China’s presidency comes at an important time in the substance of the G-20’s agenda, too, as a slowing Chinese economy is integral to the dynamics of an overall slowing global economy. As such, this event offers an opportunity to reflect on geopolitics and global governance—and the way forward. In short, what is the state of international order? 

Heading down a bumpy road?

There is little doubt that we are at an important inflection point in international order. For the past 25 years, the international system—with its win-win economic structures—has been relatively stable. But this order is under challenge and threat, and it is eroding. We risk the rise of a lose-lose international system, encompassing a deterioration of the security relations between great powers, and a breakdown of the basic structures of international cooperation. 

That may be the worst-case scenario, but it is a plausible one. Countries must be vigilant about preventing this outcome. Even though the established powers and the so-called emerging powers (clearly China is an emerged power) may not hold the same views about the content of international order, all sides have a stake in pursuing intense negotiations and engaging in debate and dialogue. It is imperative that parties find a middle ground that preserves key elements of the existing order while introducing some degree of adaptation, such that this order does not collapse.

For the past 25 years, the international system—with its win-win economic structures—has been relatively stable. But this order is under challenge and threat, and it is eroding.

A version of this kind of negotiation may occur later this year. Japan’s presidency of the G-7 will begin just ahead of China’s presidency of the G-20, putting important issues into sharp relief. As the older, Western-oriented tool for managing global issues, the G-7 still focuses on global economics but increasingly tackles cross-cutting and security issues. The G-20 is the newer, multipolar tool through which both emerged and emerging powers collaborate—but, so far, members have limited their deliberations to economic issues. The two processes together will reveal the tensions and opportunities for improvement in great power relations and in geopolitics. 

Of particular note is where political and security issues fall on the dockets of these two bodies. Although the G-20 did tackle the Syria crisis at its St. Petersburg meeting in 2013, political and security issues have otherwise not been part of the group’s agenda. But these topics form an important part of the landscape of great power politics and global governance, and they are issues for which we find ourselves in very difficult waters. Tensions between the West—particularly Europe—and Russia are running high, just as disputes are mounting in Northeast Asia. The question of America’s naval role in the Western Pacific and China’s claims of a nine-dash line are serious flash points in the U.S.-China relationship, and we should not pretend that they are not increasingly difficult to manage, because they clearly are.

I believe it is shortsighted for the G-20 not to take up some of these tense security issues.

These are not part of the formal agenda of the G-20, but they should be. Although many economists may disagree with me, I believe it is shortsighted for the G-20 not to take up some of these tense security issues. The group’s argument has been to focus on economic issues, for which there are shared interests and progress can be made, which is a fair point. But history tells us that having difficult, tense issues involving a number of stakeholders leads to one of two scenarios: either these issues are managed in a credible forum, or tensions escalate and grow into conflict. There is no third option. Moreover, these are not issues that can be resolved bilaterally. They have to be settled in a multilateral forum.

In 2016, Japan will take up the issue of the South China Sea in the G-7—a scenario that is far from ideal, since key stakeholders will not be present. Even so, the G-20 refuses to take up security issues, leaving countries without an inclusive forum to deal with these tense security concerns. Of course, they could be raised in the U.N. Security Council, but that is a crisis management tool. We should be building political relations and involving leaders in preventing great power conflict, all of which, by and large, does not happen at the U.N. But it could happen at the G-20. 

With great power comes great responsibility

A better dynamic is at work with respect to the issues of climate change and global energy policy. The Paris climate accords are counted as a major breakthrough in global governance. To understand how the outcome in Paris was achieved, we have to look again at great power relations. What really broke the logjam of stale and unproductive negotiations was the agreement struck between President Xi and President Obama. Their compact on short-lived climate pollutants transformed the global diplomacy around climate change, yielding the broader agreement in Paris.

[G]reat power status primarily entails a responsibility to act first in resolving tough global challenges and absorbing costs.

Why did the U.S.-China agreement on climate change facilitate the Paris climate accords? The United States and China did not impose a framework, nor did they insist on a particular process or stipulate a set of rules. What they did was lead. They acted first and they absorbed costs. This is the essence of the relationship between great power politics and global governance.

Great power status confers a certain set of privileges, not least of which is a certain degree of autonomy. To that end, the United States has avoided multilateral rules more than other countries, and other countries may aspire to that status. But the larger point is that great power status primarily entails a responsibility to act first in resolving tough global challenges and absorbing costs. That is how great powers lead through a framework of global governance. In today’s world, where global governance will necessarily be more multipolar than in the past, we have to find new approaches to sharing the burdens of moving first and absorbing costs. That is, far and away, the most likely way to maintain a relatively stable but continuously adapting international order—one that is empowered to tackle global challenges and soothe geopolitical tensions.

Check out our other foreign policy blog, Markaz, on politics in and policy towards the Middle East. Read all the Order from Chaos content »

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