Melissa Conley Tyler is National Executive Director of the Australian Institute of International Affairs.
Anyone who works on the G20 has at some point been asked the question: 'What has the G20 ever done for us?' I'm always tempted to quote Monty Python and say 'the aqueducts!', but I content myself with: 'The largest coordinated fiscal stimulus package in history to avert a global depression.' The usual rejoinder? 'Yes, but what has the G20 done lately?'
Earlier this month Renmin University hosted China's first G20 Think Tank Summit ahead of the G20 Summit in St Petersburg on 5-6 September. I found it a useful corrective to the sense of disappointment that often surrounds the G20.
The summit was also an insight into the sort of rising power China may be. I saw a China that is much less hesitant to put itself forward. As Zhao Changhui of China Eximbank put it: 'China has to play a role in devising a new and workable international order.' In particular, it showed a China that sees the benefit of exercising its power in collaboration with others.
China's approach to the G20 appears optimistic, purposeful and ambitious. In opening the summit, Renmin University President Chen Yulu described the G20 as a vehicle to 'get the world out of crisis and realise common prosperity.' According to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Director Zhang Yuyan, 'the G20 provides the world a platform to facilitate the solution to global governance.'
The G20 was presented as a crucial institution at a nervous time. What came through was a shared worry about recovery, particularly the continuing weakness in the EU and US, and slowing growth in emerging economies. Former Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing expressed concern that the world may again fall into chaos while private sector representative Wang Ping said 'the global crisis is far from over: we are in the second half of the process.'
The summit focused heavily on mutual self-interest and the investment that all G20 members have in the global economy. The Chinese representatives used reassuring language: 'do away with zero sum thinking', 'do away with Cold War mentality' and 'build a progressively cooperative mentality' for a 'harmonious and prosperous world'. There were also specific demands from the Chinese representatives: on the international reserve currency, on better regulation of financial derivatives, on reform of international financial institutions and on multilateral trade, especially progress on reducing developed country agricultural subsidies.
Ren Xiao of Fudan University last year described China a 'reformist status quo power': that is, a power willing to work within existing structures, thus not a revolutionary power but one that works to shape its environment and seek rule-change where needed. Professor Ren sees China seeking such change through accommodation, negotiation and consensus-building over a long time span.
G20 is the perfect forum for the relationship-building required. It provides a way for important economies to work together on issues on which they can have an impact. Its legitimacy comes from any contribution it makes to common prosperity.
China has everything to gain from embedding its relationships with other major players in a congenial multilateral forum like the G20, which represents developed and developing nations equally. It provides China with a forum to build relationships and pursue its interests as common interests for incremental and long-term reform of the international economic system.
So when you observe the next bout of cynicism about G20, take, for a moment, the Chinese perspective: it's a long game, we're all in it together, and it's all about the relationships.
Photo by Flickr user Gobierno Federal.