By guest blogger Andrew Schrumm

While designed to build consensus among a broad group of countries, a significant aspect of the G20 has been a consolidated discussion between the leaders of China and the United States. US President, Barack Obama and China’s President, Hu Jintao have used these informal talks for relationship building.  These informal discussions have until now complemented the G20 leaders’ process. But if these US-China leaders’ talks take hold, it may also prove to be a principal rival to the G20 dialogue.

A new game of expectation-raising has begun to swirl over what has been dubbed the “G2” in anticipation of renewed strategic dialogue and the home-and-home state visits announced for 2009, with President Hu visiting Washington in late-summer and President Obama visiting Beijing in late-fall. While the US-China bilaterals will not lack for issues, indeed there are already a series of bilaterals between China-US officials, it remains to be seen how in-depth the two leaders will want to harmonize global economic strategies. Will these encounters survive expectations? Will the G2 serve as distraction to the G20 process?

China’s global status can hardly be ignored. While the economic fires rage on in New York, London and Tokyo, Beijing has demonstrated a cool confidence and continued growth. In the lead-up to the London Summit, People’s Bank of China Governor, Zhou Xiaochuan made very public declarations on the perils of over-reliance on a single currency for global reserves, advocating instead for a standardized, SDR-type currency valuation less prone to volatility. In London, Paola Subacchi of Chatham House commented that, “China graduated from regional to global power. It showed political and financial muscles and the appetite to be involved in the global dialogue – with also an interest in developing a closer relationship with Washington.”

A leading voice in support of an informal G2 “leadership conclave” has been C. Fred Bergsten of the Peterson Institute. As early as 2006, he advocated bilateral diplomacy to support China’s and America’s “joint responsibility” to ensure global financial stability. Recent events have revived proposals for such a format.  These advocates have stressed the need for the two countries to resolve currency disputes and jointly enforce IFI reforms.

In his analysis, CIGI Senior Fellow Gregory Chin suggests that failure or frustration in a divergent G20 process may feed a “Great Power withdrawal into the bilateral track to deal with matters of highest strategic importance. This could mean confining the multilateral track to implementing the decisions made by the Big 2.” This should not immediately be considered a negative outcome. While the G20 scores high on legitimacy, its efficiency and compliance have waned. Resolution of the multitude of issues on the US-China bilateral agenda alone (from trade to currency valuation to intellectual property) could ease gridlock in many international negotiations. However, expectations for a lean and authoritative G2 assume that the two leader countries can abstain from squabbles over human rights, the proverbial ‘third rail’ of US-China relations.

While certainly there are larger strategic factors at play, the success of a G2 would heavily depend on ability of the leaders themselves to get along and work constructively. Can the ever technocratic Hu find common ground with the always affable Obama? The new American President shows an understanding of the importance of the bilateral relationship. Following their first meeting, President Obama noted that, “I continue to believe that the relationship between China and the United States is not only important for the citizens of both our countries but will help to set the stage for how the world deals with a whole host of challenges in the years to come.”

Indications from inside China, however, seem to downplay any expectations of a G2. In the days before the London Summit, leading scholar Huang Ping of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) asserted that “the so-called G2 is both unrealistic and problematic to fit in with the traditional Chinese value of a harmonious world.” By pushing other regional and global developing economies out of key international decision-making, China could risk alienating its like-minded allies in the global South. Continued success of the G20 fits in much better with this approach, and Dr. Huang suggests that China should promote this larger steering group.

Whether formalized or not, a G2 appears to be inevitable, if in nothing but name only. As the two leaders meet, the US-China forum will be cast in this light with enormous scrutiny. ‘G2’ will become the favored term of pundits, perhaps to its detriment.

A major stumbling block for the G2 may end up being the two nations’ cultural differences in their fiscal behaviors. Arguably, the US propensity to spend and the Chinese need to save drove the world into crisis and offered recovery, respectively. However, this balance has proven unsustainable and the macro-economic structure must be fixed. Recovery relies on the two governments providing their citizens with the correct incentives towards long-term restorative fiscal behavior. Yet, to appear successful, a G2 will need instantaneous results.

In his column, “What the G2 Must Discuss Now that the G20 is Over” (7 April 2009), the Financial Times’ Martin Wolf suggests that while China’s desire to engage the US may be self-motivated – to stabilize its US currency reserve, deflect exchange rate reform, and rebalance spending-saving – it is a “necessary condition for serious discussion of global reforms.” If arranged properly, a collaborative G2 would have the potential to remove policy obstacles and pave the way for general agreement across the board. However, if used as another opportunity to name and shame each other, it could heighten tensions in an already delicate relationship.

The most likely outcome is a mediocre G2, one that cannot live-up to the overblown expectations. Here, enters again the G20, this time with a strong dose of modesty and a previously excluded group of leaders more committed than ever to be a part of the process. If however the G20 can forgo this chain of events by harnessing leadership from within and boosting national compliance and effectiveness, plurilateral consensus may trump dyadic centralism.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.