Nations and leaders must remember the importance of diplomatic behaviour

Leaders are looked up to by society and only by setting an example and engendering respect and trust can they resolve problems

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 September, 2016, 3:23am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 July, 2017, 11:09am

Leaders’ summits like the Group of 20 and Association of Southeast Asian Nations usually have pre-determined agendas and outcomes. Consensus is their hallmark and rarely are differences expressed in meetings reflected in the final communiqué. Such a format makes for a lack of surprise and, sometimes, even progress. Events and bilateral talks on the sidelines therefore at times can be as important, potentially controversial and require the greatest diplomacy.


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China has frosty relations with fellow G20 members the US, Japan and South Korea, but a gathering so important requires diplomatic standards and protocols. There is also the need for nations with close economic ties to have workable relationships. President Xi Jinping had dinner with Barack Obama, while shorter meetings took place with South Korea’s Park Geun-hye and Japan’s Shinzo Abe. British leader Theresa May’s postponing of a nuclear deal with a Chinese firm did not deter talks, nor did growing rivalry with India prevent talks with Narendra Modi.

Little concrete came from the meetings, with promises being the highlights. Yet the handshakes and smiles proved a willingness to work together, no matter what the strains. Even Obama’s unconventional arrival at Hangzhou, with him being forced to leave his plane through underside steps when no red-carpeted rolling staircase was provided, and tight security causing chaos for American officials and media, did not get in the way of proceedings. Obama played down events, suggesting they were the result of the daunting size of the US contingent.

China can set an example by putting its G20 call for action into practice

He was similarly diplomatic towards insulting comments by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on the eve of the Asean summit. Obama had been scheduled to hold talks with Duterte and had made clear the killing of thousands in a war against drugs since he took power in June would be on the agenda. Duterte responded by using a crude Filipino expression, prompting the American side to call off the meeting. The American president said he understood his Philippine counterpart was “a colourful guy” and Duterte later expressed regret.

Changing social mores and use of language mean that political decorum is not as it once was. Duterte and US presidential candidate Donald Trump are extreme examples. But there is still every need for diplomatic behaviour in dealings between nations and politicians. Leaders are looked up to by society and only by setting an example and engendering respect and trust can they resolve problems.