Add to the long list of differences between China and the United States, involving everything from democracy and human rights to one-party rule and state-led markets, one more: the way the two “strategic competitors” host meetings. The Summit of the Americas held last week in Los Angeles was a bit, well, disorganised. The agenda and list of invitees were not finalised until days before the opening ceremony while a very public brouhaha played out for weeks over Washington’s guest-list snub of left-wing Nicaragua, Venezuela and Cuba that often overshadowed any substantive messaging. “It’s fricking amateur hour,” Nicholas Cull, professor of public diplomacy at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, said of overall US messaging around the summit. “It doesn’t seem like they prepared with image in mind. Chinese summits are a very different animal.” The summit – the first hosted on US soil since its 1994 launch in Miami – was aimed largely at countering Beijing’s growing footprint in the United States’ backyard. China has sharply increased investments and infrastructure projects, with China-Latin America trade exceeding US$400 billion in 2021, compared to US$295 billion for the US. The way the Los Angeles summit played out contrasted with China’s hosting of international meetings which are marked by exhaustive preparation, highly scripted events, not a detail left to chance, an exercise in political theatre. The contrast reflects key differences in the nations’ respective political systems and the function and culture of meetings. One difference: the US faces a tougher challenge operating in an increasingly multipolar world as it tries to forge a democratic consensus. This frequently involves building consensus among disparate voices, a process that favours cajoling – often played out rather messily and publicly – over leverage and muscle. “On the substantive matters, what I heard was almost uniformity,” US President Joe Biden said on Thursday. In contrast, Beijing generally has the upper hand, despite its “win-win” and “mutual prosperity” mantras, as it hands out infrastructure contracts that Southeast Asia, Central Asia, Eastern Europe and other regions badly need. “The reason that China is so good at this is because there’s such a discrepancy of power. It’s easier to organise something if you hold all the cards,” Cull said. “The US is selling something much more difficult to pull off.” China is outmanoeuvring US in Latin America region, senators are warned The US also tends to have less money to throw around at summits, which reduces the incentive among foreign partners to support its initiatives – and can lead to more public criticism and negotiating through the media. Biden offered foreign aid worth some US$617 million for Latin America this week and US$150 million for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) last month. This compares with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s November pledge of US$1.5 billion for Southeast Asian pandemic control and economic recovery. US presidents also must accede to Congress, which controls the purse strings and carefully scrutinises aid budgets. “Biden’s main problem is this administration’s inability to offer economic goodies to foreign countries for them to happily align with the US, because global liberalism has been so successfully discredited by Trump and detested by the American voters,” said Wu Yu-shan, political science professor at National Taiwan University. “China, on the other hand, has more leverage.” In China, international gatherings tend to focus on economics, with politics – let alone public disagreement – largely unthinkable in a one-party state viewed as omniscient and inclined toward rubber-stamp outcomes. In the West, economics are important. But, as seen last week in Los Angeles, they are often overshadowed by other issues, including migration, women’s rights, inequality and governance. “In China, dissent is not part of the process, everyone knows what’s expected,” said Jeffrey Moon, head of China Moon Strategies and a former US consul general in Chengdu. “In America, such events have an economic dimension, but the political dimension is much more important.” ‘Lessons learned’, what’s next for China’s modern-day Silk Road projects? While cross-cultural experts stress that there are many exceptions on both sides – and the US has organised many relatively on-message meetings – the Chinese emphasise harmonious, carefully controlled outcomes without surprises. The idea of Xi appearing in any setting where he might be heckled, as Biden was on Wednesday over clean energy, is anathema in the Chinese system. “There is an emphasis on form, face, appearance in China,” said Susan Brownell, an anthropologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “Going all the way back to Confucius, Chinese event organisers give a level of attention to protocol that is probably unmatched in the world.” While this did not encourage spontaneity, China tended to make even small developing nations feel important and respected, she added, something the US did not always achieve. And while leaders in both countries must juggle domestic pressure groups and criticism, China’s tight media and social controls give the Communist Party much greater leeway to steer outcomes that may be domestically unpopular. The US, on the other hand, must work harder to “sell” foreign agreements at home. Last week saw US officials repeatedly underscore how any regional deal with Latin American and Caribbean nations would benefit US workers, American companies and civic groups. The US also must contend with changes in its and allies’ elected governments and the resulting wrenching policy shifts that can undercut momentum and erode trust. Rebuilding foreign alliances has been a cornerstone of Biden’s foreign policy as a way to counter China, for instance, after former president Donald Trump slammed Nato, picked fights with allies and cozied up to dictators. China has also had a lot of practice at summit pageantry. Local governments have hosted global business events for decades, coordinated through top-down directives, replete with banquets, “family” photos and toasts celebrating “our foreign friends” bound by economic ties. “Every province has its trade fair, with foreign companies pressured to attend, and the centrepiece is always a signing ceremony at the end with a big banner,” Moon said. “There’s lots of signing, which may or may not involve anything substantive.” US must focus on Latin America to counter China in region, Senate hears While China’s protocol skills are often world-class, they can be rigid and at odds with overseas practice. Brownell, who advised the International Olympic Committee in China during and after the 2008 Beijing Games, cited some of the headwinds overseas organisers faced at the time, including cocktail parties and seating delegates at round work tables to stress equality. “It was so inconceivable that they would have alcohol before the banquet,” she said, nor was Beijing comfortable deviating from its hierarchical, deeply ingrained seating protocol that includes having the highest-ranking person in the middle. In its defence, the Biden administration has been juggling major, simultaneous challenges, including Covid-19; other regional summits; sanctions and aid for Ukraine after Russia’s invasion; and the launch of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. Even so, analysts said, the administration had made unforced errors. While it was all but inevitable that summit invitations would reflect divisive US politics in an election year, these should have been settled months ago, allowing the controversy to die down. Instead the “who’s in, who’s out” overshadowed the summit. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador grabbed headlines days before the opening when he formalised his absence to support Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. More drama followed when Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro – a friend of Trump’s – declared he would attend before parroting Trump’s lie that Biden’s election was not legitimate. The administration has also dragged its feet on filling diplomatic posts, including many not subject to congressional approval. These could have finessed earlier on problems that played out despite Biden’s long-standing familiarity with the region, both as US vice-president and during his 12 years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “It is just shocking how we devoted seemingly so little time to the preparation and logistics themselves as well as investment in relationships,” said Brett Bruen, president of the Global Situation Room consultancy and former White House head of global engagement in Barack Obama’s administration. “Biden knows how to do this. It’s not rocket science.” Critics also said the US could do a better job bringing some pizazz to its host role. “Put some sparkle, some superficial stuff, into these summits so that leaders felt like we were taking them seriously, boosting their sense of self-importance,” Bruen said. Biden launches IPEF, with 12 Asia-Pacific economies signing on As controversy swirled, Biden declined to hold a summit-ending press conference – Secretary of State Antony Blinken did instead – prompting journalists to question what example the US was setting about democracy and free speech. Aides sought to counter that narrative. “I don’t see the kind of formal press conference issue as a particular litmus test,” National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said. “By the end of this, you can be pretty confident that he will be displaying – putting on full display – America’s raucous democracy in all of its wonderful and attractive forms.” Given the importance of perception, however, some said that last week’s hosting missteps risked undercutting Washington’s image, handing the Chinese Communist Party fodder for its propaganda and soft-power campaigns. “This was not only unacceptable but creates unnecessary fissures with key allies,” said Bruen, arguing that the performance allowed Beijing to argue “do you really want to put your lot in with those guys?” Beijing was quick to grab the opportunity. “The US needs to abandon its … high-handed approach, stop bullying, coercion, blockade and sanctions, and develop its relations with other regional countries on the basis of mutual respect,” foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Friday, his third barbed summit critique of the week. But the many US errors seen in Los Angeles last week also speak to a country confident enough to air its dirty laundry in public. “It’s frustrating but it comes from a good place, a kind of a confidence that allows countries to be themselves and are willing to risk that criticism,” Cull said.