Malcolm Turnbull

It wasn’t so long ago that the annual summit of the seemingly all-powerful G7 was a major event. But sometime in the last decade or so, this group of the once-upon-a-time seven richest countries in the world stopped being the seven richest countries and the G7 began to fade from relevance.

In its place has emerged the G20, more of a higgledy-piggledy grouping that includes the 20 largest economies plus the European Union, making room for the large emerging economies of China, India, Brazil Argentina, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, etc.

It’s not as all-powerful — and all-agreeing — but it’s quite a bit more interesting because of that, especially since the worst of the global financial crisis that brought the new group to the fore has faded (for now).

(The G7 still meets, but since the global financial crisis no one much cares — with China, the world’s second-biggest economy, out, it’s actually a bit of a joke.)

Now it’s all about the G20. It’s kind of what the United Nations should be more like: an annual meeting of the world’s most powerful leaders who are forced to talk to each other outside the by-the-numbers set-pieces of bilateral meetings. These meetings are cutely described as “on the sidelines” of the main event, and it’s here that all the action happens.

Throwing everyone in the same room, or at least, the same bunch of hotels in the same town, seems to throw up far better insights as to the real state of play in world affairs than the rather monochrome aesthetic of the clubby G7.

This year’s G20 leaders summit (there are also G20 finance ministers and G20 central bankers summits, but no one much cares about those) has been in China, which gets terribly overexcited about hosting global anythings. The summit is being held in the large but relatively obscure city of Hangzhou. It would be like the US holding the G20 in Cleveland, or Australia holding it in Townsville.

As well as the world’s leaders, the world’s media is gathered at the G20. So “optics”, as people like to say, matter a lot these days, because the media will pick up any error or faux pas and run with it. Print first, ask questions later.

And so this year’s summit was more or less framed by the snub — hang on, no, not a snub — of Barack Obama, who arrived on the lower stairs of Air Force One sans red carpet. OMG. At the other end was Obama being called a “son of a whore” by the Philippines colourful, trigger-happy new President Rodrigo Duterte, prompting POTUS to cancel their meeting.

[State-approved vigilante ‘death squads’ in Philippines kill 1900 — and counting]

The China “snub”, it turns out, was ultra-cautious US security.

But the real nitty-gritty, as far as the US and China (ergo the rest of the world) were concerned, was the meeting between Obama and Chinese leader Xi Jinping. They discussed a decent laundry list of things, furiously agreeing on a things like climate change, wildlife trafficking and refugees but pointedly not agreeing on the elephant in the room, which Obama rudely pointed out: China’s aggressive island-building activities in the South China Sea.

[What is going on in the South China Sea?]

“So where we see them [China] violating international rules and norms, as we have seen in some cases in the South China Sea, or in some of their behaviors when it comes to economic policy, we have been very firm and we have indicated to them that there would be consequences,” Obama laid out in an interview with CNN ahead of his meeting with Xi.

This gave China’s censors conniptions and was wiped from the Chinese internet; monitors concluded that it was the country’s most censored day on the web since the deadly explosions ripped apart a suburb in the port city of Tianjin last year.

The G20 also gives a country like Australia — that is, lucky, or at least rich, enough to get a seat at the main table — an insight into the priorities and offshore performance of its own leader. Like most things Malcolm Turnbull does, it was a mixed bag.

Unsurprisingly, the Australian PM tried what has now become the increasingly awkward Australia/China two-step: he was more circumspect than Obama but firm on South China Sea while cooing about the misnamed “free-trade” agreement and its opportunities.

“We are consistent and our position is very clear that we expect and encourage all parties to comply with the rule of law, to show restraint and not act in a way that would exacerbate or create tension,” Turnbull said about the the South China Sea, referring to an international arbitration against China in a dispute with the Philippines.

[Conflict in South China Sea an ominous background to this election]

But there was nowhere for Turnbull to hide on trade and investment this time. After  several rejections from his government on Chinese investment, most recently a $5 billion bid on Ausgrid for “security” reasons, this was no longer the good news side of the equation. The two-step was suddenly a one-note tune.

Xi hit Turnbull with both barrels, saying during their meeting that China “hopes the Australian side continues to dedicate itself to providing foreign investors a fair, transparent and predictable policy environment”.

Massive hypocrisy from China, of course, which allows nil foreign investment or even competition in its utilities or many other sectors.

Rather than turn this back on the Chinese, Turnbull could not have sounded more like John Howard when he said that “China understands as well, if not better, than anyone — our sovereign right to determine who invests in Australia”.

As we have noted here before, good luck now to those Australian companies hoping for a rails run into the Chinese market on ChAFTA.

Instead of retiring gracefully, or even finding solace, as Tony Abbott was wont to do in the arms of Japan, Turnbull doubled down on trade and looked, frankly, lame when he came up with the option of pushing a trade agreement with … a Brexiting United Kingdom.

And for his last G20 trick, was Turnbull so rattled by the force of the Chinese attack and Australia’s lack of a decent answer he resorted to domestic politics by finally calling out Labor Senator Sam Dastyari on his Chinese connections — or was the trying to send the Chinese another message? Maybe both.