Published on 5 Sep 2016

G20 summit: can the UK stay relevant?

Theresa May began the day with a mantra she is repeating throughout this G20. She told Australia’s PM that Britain intends to be more outward looking than ever post-Brexit. The referendum vote, she says, was not a sign that Britain wanted to draw back from the world.

But can Britain maintain the relevance Mrs May seeks outside the EU? She obviously doubted that up to the referendum result. Today, while she was meeting the Indian PM, President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry were meeting President Hollande and Chancellor Merkel just down the corridor. Theresa May’s had her own meeting already with the US President, but who will President Obama’s successors prioritise in the diary in the future?

President Obama’s end of summit press conference will be held away from the conference centre where his Chinese hosts had planned it to happen. The US is trying to get back a little autonomy over its media management at the summit after a series of rows with Chinese government officials on this trip. The UK media is sometimes accused of being obsessed by “process” at these international gatherings, but the US media think the snub to President Obama at the airport on his arrival in Hangzhou and subsequent spats with Chinese officials are indicative of greater truths and it’s interesting how they have dominated US coverage of this summit so far – the Washington Post has a particularly good piece explaining the wider resonance of it all.

As I write the leaders are in one of the plenary sessions which some regard as the necessary pain of these gatherings. Leaders read out pre-prepared speeches, little real dialogue happens. The main action is in the bi-laterals and later, after the formal close of the summit, Theresa May has a very important one with China’s President Xi.

He will be looking for any signs of slippage in respect for his country. China has already issued veiled threats to withdraw investment in the UK if Theresa May’s “review” of the Hinkley Nuclear Energy deal ends up with it being torn up. The 2 years on the naughty step imposed on David Cameron after he upset China by meeting the Dalai Lama could look like minor punishment compared with what follows.

One former Cabinet Minister sacked by Theresa May is convinced the new PM will end up going along with the deal that George Osborne and David Cameron sealed with the Chinese on nuclear energy – money now to help build Hinckley locked into a deal to have a Chinese designed and built nuclear power station at Bradwell in Essex in the future. Mrs May insists she is still weighing up the situation.

George Osborne used to tell journalists on what became quite regular trips to China that the Beijing government had lifted more people out of poverty than anyone, ever. My suspicion is that Theresa May looks at things differently.

The visiting delegations and national medias have been assigned hotels, nothing odd in that. But if you walk out of the media hotels into the streets and not straight into the shuttle bus to the conference centre you can end up being approached by one of the not so subtly observant Party members peppered on every street corner, some on motorbikes, all with hotlines to the police to alert them to bad behaviour (like attempts to talk to real people). These party stalwarts stand out because there’s virtually no one else around. The streets are empty. It’s as if there was a fifteen minute warning of imminent attack. In reality, some have been paid to get out of town and some have been compelled.

It is a case of China wanting to show itself at its gleaming prosperous best and getting the messaging wrong.

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