17 November 2021
Asia’s summit season ended on Tuesday when a long-awaited meeting between Joe Biden and Xi Jinping finally took place.
There have been a series of combative encounters between US and Chinese officials in recent months, but this was the first face-to-face meeting (albeit online) between Biden and Xi as leaders of their respective countries –they had briefly spoken by phone and previously met in person as vice-presidents.
The anticipation surrounding the proposed meeting tended to overshadow discussion of trade, climate change, aid and security during the previous weeks’ summits, including those held by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the G20.
A joint statement on climate change released by the United States and China ahead of the meeting – hinting that US–China cooperation was set to improve – gave new momentum to the flagging Glasgow climate conference.
In the end, the meeting was wide-ranging but apparently inconclusive on the major issues, with no formal statement issued. However, the two men expressed a willingness to manage their differences in a way that may avoid significant conflict between the two superpowers, which are sometimes dubbed the G2.
If nothing else, the meeting appears to have paved the way for the leaders to have more personal contact in the future. Given the disturbing frequency with which many commentators and politicians casually talk about war between the United States and China, that would be progress in itself.
More meetings between Biden and Xi might also help to shift the balance of US–China relations from one of confrontation to one of managed competition – or even, to some extent, cooperation.
But the idea that a modest increase in contact between the leaders can resolve major world issues is unrealistic and no substitute for other leaders tackling those issues in broader multilateral discussions.
The UN climate change conference in Glasgow ended with the countries involved expressing starkly different views on the future of coal, the world’s largest contributor to carbon emissions.
British prime minister Boris Johnson, who hosted the conference, said the agreement to “phase down” the use of the fuel sounds the “death knell for coal power”.
Australian resources minister Keith Pitt said “phase down” – a softer choice of words than “phase out” – means Australian mines won’t have to close and coal will remain a key export for years.
Coal has been mentioned in the communiqués of a number of global summits held in the past year – from the G7’s to G20’s – but meaningful action has been circumscribed by references to ending aid projects that support coal, the use of abatement measures and a narrow focus on the power industry.
Johnson’s and Pitt’s different interpretations of the latest agreement on coal reflect a broader divide over whether the conference did enough to achieve the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels.
Depending on the measuring stick, the agreements reached at Glasgow appear to have the potential to limit warming to just below 2 per cent, a result that is better than expected but less than hoped for.
Despite Pitt’s confidence, it appears the future of coal is in the hands of global investors not diplomats, and that post-conference debate may increase nervousness about the reliability of coal as an investment.
This was reflected on Monday, when Australian finance minister Simon Birmingham told a Singapore investment conference that Australia’s export profile would change due to limits on carbon emissions and that the country should now be seen as a destination for new energy investments.
Defence ministers from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania last week issued a warning about a looming military confrontation with Russia due to rising tensions over Europe’s migrant crisis.
Meanwhile, Poland deployed 20,000 troops to its border with Belarus, one of Russia’s closest allies, to prevent stranded Middle Eastern migrants from forcing their way into the country. This, in turn, prompted Russia to send warplanes to patrol the area.
Authoritarian Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko has been encouraging migration agents to funnel migrants through Belarus and into neighbouring EU countries.
Critics fear that his actions could destabilise the region and revive the popular discontent about refugees and migrants that caused Europe great political turmoil in 2015.
Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki declared Lukashenko’s tactics to be a “new type of war” in which “civilians and media messages are the ammunition”.
The weaponisation of migrants is also an issue in Asia. In Bangladesh, gangs associated with the Islamicist Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army are vying with Bangladeshi authorities and aid organisations for control of the country’s refugee camps.
The predominantly Muslim refugees were forced into Bangladesh by Buddhist nationalists and the Myanmar military, leaving the Dhaka government to deal with internal Rohingya tensions.
The current showdown in Europe underlines the need for Asian countries to manage the irregular movement of people via multilateral mechanisms such as the Bali Process, which is jointly run by Indonesia and Australia.