The big O and the big X are to meet at a big summit in what is a vital small ‘g’ moment—the creation of the g2. I’ll call the US–China talks the group of 2 rather than Group of 2 to suggest its partial and hesitant birth—lower case as well as low key in its expression.
Washington and Beijing deny any intent to create a condominium that will jointly rule. That denial has many purposes, not least to deny offence to all the other powers that would sit beneath the g2. A partial, even conflicted, condominium beats the cacophony that we’ve had around here recently. All the recent noise proves why this summit needs to seek the sort of understandings essential for g2.
As a means to think about China and the US, the term G2 ran strong in 2008 and 2009 as the financial crisis erupted across the globe. The G2 powers couldn’t really get their own heads around the idea, much less give it any operational heft. The G20 won that contest effortlessly.
The way the G20 has quickly become essential suggests why the g2 needs to make a comeback to fill some of the power spaces the G20 can’t reach. The g2 is a pithier or trendier version of Coral Bell’s idea of a ‘shadow condominium’.
Drawing on Cold War experiences such as the Cuban missile crisis, Coral saw the ‘shadow condominium’ as a temporary power-sharing arrangement that emerged during periods of crisis to provide stability through joint great power management of the balance of power. (Brendan Taylor’s gave us a nicely-crafted discussion of the concept here on The Strategist earlier.) The g2 is probably going to have to be just as shadowy a condominium, but it will need to have a long-term existence. The two dominant powers have a lot of things to manage, even if they can’t agree.
The Financial Times’ Jamil Anderlini, in Beijing, says that Beijing has now quietly adopted and rebranded the G2 label that it sternly rejected five years ago (requires registration):
The ‘new type of great power relationship’ that Mr Xi will tout when he meets with Mr Obama is little more than a pirated copy of the G2 proposal that was tossed around at the start of the US President’s first term. But it marks a huge shift in the way China intends to deal with the world from now on.
Washington is talking some of the same talk. The March speech by Obama’s National Security Adviser, Tom Donilon, looks like an excellent précis of the script the US President will take to this summit. The key point is Donilon’s better model for relations between the current and the coming power:
I disagree with the premise put forward by some historians and theorists that a rising power and an established power are somehow destined for conflict. There is nothing preordained about such an outcome. It is not a law of physics, but a series of choices by leaders that lead to great power confrontation. Others have called for containment. We reject that, too. A better outcome is possible. But it falls to both sides—the United States and China—to build a new model of relations between an existing power and an emerging one. Xi Jinping and President Obama have both endorsed this goal.
The new model dare not speak its name, so whisper gently of the g2. If the g2 can’t work, then Asia’s peace, stability and affluence will be imperilled. In turn, that would threaten much that globalisation has achieved.
The rest of Asia clearly needs a g2, yet doesn’t want the shadow condominium to take too firm an existence. A Japan that saw the US getting too engaged in joint rule with China would have to consider its options beyond the comfort of the alliance. An India in the process of arriving at the top would not want to see only two chairs in the throne room. The rest of Asia is as interested in a soft concert as a shadow condominium, to get quite a few more chairs in the command space.
Such blithe intermingling of g2 condominium and Asian concert drives the academics and many of the wonks into a frenzy: this isn’t a clear definition of terms that can be built into a clear and settled structure. You can’t have a shadow condominium and a soft concert ticking over at the same time, surely? Well, spelling ain’t everything but small ‘c’ rather than big C and small ‘g’ rather than big ‘G’ suits much of Asia’s current deeply anxious discussion of architecture and system. There’s a lot of tentative and worrying stuff going on here.
Ambiguity can bother academics and analysts more that politicians and practitioners. For the politicians, ambiguity can be rendered in the positive light of flexibility. Grand design sounds better but ad hoc is how most hot issues get hosed down. What Xi and Obama seek with a ‘new’ or ‘better model’ for their great power relationship is to get some structure to underpin the ad hoc.
For politicians, it’s always about both the person and the policy; the deal matters but the style and personality of the leader on the other side of the table defines what’s possible. Xi and Obama are seeking their Reagan–Gorbachev moment; but given how that all turned out for Gorby and the Soviet Union, this is a toxic analogy for Beijing. The structure and status of a g2 sounds much better, even if the label is more tacit than explicit.
Washington wants to talk about a ‘new model of relations between an existing power and an emerging one’; Beijing isn’t too interested in that existing and emerging distinction. The g2 is the description of two equal powers—note that word equal. The two powers in the g2 are at the top of the heap, doing important things for themselves that also impact on everybody else. Even if the g2 label isn’t used, it expresses understandings and structures for the relationship that will influence much that’s to come.
Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user The White House.