Written by John Kirton, Co-director, G20 Research Group
China's growing G20 leadership will clearly reach a new stage after Donald Trump becomes president of the United States on January 20, 2017, and prepares for his first G20 summit appearance in Hamburg, Germany, on July 7-8, 2017. But what form will this leadership take? Will China's internationally experienced President Xi Jinping find a way to bond with the rookie U.S. president to unleash the next generation of China-U.S. co-leadership in G20 and global governance to address the compelling global challenges both their countries and the global community confront? Will China find a new co-leader, such as the German-led European Union or an India backed by the BRICS to produce badly needed global public goods while Trump's America takes a pause? Or will China try to lead the G20 alone, without the United States, on such central issues as global economic growth, open trade and investment, climate change and energy, and the fight against corruption and terrorism?
For the few days after Trump's election on November 8, China followed the careful, cautious, approach to G20 and global leadership that it had successfully relied on since the start. It has now signaled its willingness to lead with both the United States and Europe on different priority issues that the Hamburg Summit will address. In doing so, it is continuing its longstanding strategy of co-leading with different consequential G20 countries as circumstances allow. On this foundation, and that of China's bigger, bolder, innovative leadership at its recent G20 Hangzhou Summit on September 4-5, 2016, a successful Hamburg Summit could be built.
President Xi began by sending president-elect Trump a routine congratulatory message. Then he and his government kept silent while the Trump team assembled for the transition and started to define what their priorities would be. Then, by November 14, Wang Yi, China's foreign minister, said "We established a roadmap to improve relations with the U.S. and we are ready to make efforts for that." Cui Tiankai, China's ambassador to the United States strongly signaled a cooperative, if cautious, Chinese approach. He called for a smooth transition of power in Washington, continued growth of Sino-American bilateral relations and cooperation on global economic, trade, investment, energy and counterterrorism, from which both countries had greatly benefited in the past. On trade he said both should abide by the World Trade Organization's rules.
But on other issues, he signaled that China had other potential major power partners. On Asian security, he declared China's willingness to work with the United States, as one of the major partners, for regional prosperity and stability. And on the "global challenge" of climate change, he declared "Whatever other countries might do... China will continue to make efforts to respond to climate change and try to aim at green and sustainable development." He did so as representatives of the 193 signatories to the Paris Agreement on climate change gathered in Marrakesh to write the rule book for implementing the agreement and to mobilize the urgently needed climate finance. Here a new potential co-leader appeared, as the European Union indicated it would join with China to prevent the United States from renouncing the historic climate change control promises that presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping had recently stood side by side to make.