The G20 leaders’ summit was held last month in Osaka, the first time Japan has hosted a G20 summit.
– The G20 was characterised as underwhelming despite an ambitious agenda and comprehensive agreements on marine plastic, international trade and extremist content on social media
– Most interest was in the numerous bilateral summits between leaders, with the meeting between Presidents Trump and Xi resulting in an effective ‘ceasefire’ in the US-China trade war
– The broad consensus that has underpinned the G20 since the Global Financial Crisis in 2008 appears to have dissipated
– Without significant reform, the G20 risks being portrayed as increasingly unrepresentative or ineffective
The G20 summit, which brings together the world’s 19 largest economies and the European Union in an annual meeting to discuss issues of global concern, recently concluded in Osaka. Japan, presiding over their first conference since the G20 leaders’ summit began in 2008, proposed an ambitious agenda emphasising three key issues: free and fair trade, global data governance and the digital economy, and innovative solutions to environmental problems.
The summit comes at a crucial time for both Japan and the world more broadly. Domestically, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was forced to juggle the conference with important local and national elections in April and July respectively and the abdication of long-serving Emperor Akihito. Internationally, tense relations between several G20 members, and the emergence of the belief the liberal international order is now “obsolete” and had “come into conflict with the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population”, boiled over, casting a cloud over the conference.
HIGH EXPECTATIONS, LOW OUTCOMES
The Osaka summit set high hopes, hoping to distance itself from the 2018 G20 summit in Buenos Aires just seven months prior, which was considered by some to be underwhelming and emblematic of the clear divisions between members. In addition to the three key areas of focus, the Osaka summit sought to include a dizzying array of thematic areas such as the empowerment of women, trade and investment, the global economy, the environment, development and health. Prime Minister Abe argued that these areas were of great importance to the Indo-Pacific, particularly free and fair trade, from which the ASEAN region has benefitted.
Several key agreements were reached at the G20. Leaders reached consensus on the ‘Osaka Blue Ocean Vision’, a plan to reduce marine plastic litter entirely by 2050, and a proposal by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison to force social media companies to act on live-streamed extremist content on social media. Indonesia, too, took the lead on arguing for the protection of the multilateral trading system and reform to the World Trade Organization (WTO) which has come under significant threat amid the US–China trade war and increasing trade protectionism. Most G20 leaders, led by French President Emmanuel Macron, also reaffirmed their commitments to the Paris Agreement – with the notable exception of the United States. Irrespective of Japan’s ambitious agenda and the agreements reached between leaders, analysts viewed the Osaka summit much like in Buenos Aires; underwhelming and having failed to deliver on its ambitious agenda.
Most eyes at the G20 were not on the agenda, but rather on the number of crucial bilateral meetings undertaken on the sidelines. The most prominent of these was the meeting between US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping, with the two leaders calling an effective ‘ceasefire’ on the trade war which has simmered for months — an outcome that was much the same as during the Buenos Aires G20 summit. After a meeting that Trump described as “better than expected”, the US held off from implementing tariffs on a further US$300 billion worth of Chinese imports while also lifting some restrictions placed on selling technology to Chinese state-owned telecommunications company Huawei.
Trump’s other meetings also attracted interest, but for different reasons. His breakfast meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, accused of orchestrating the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018 and ostracised by many Western leaders, ended with praise for the Prince’s liberalisation efforts in the deeply conservative kingdom. Trump’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin also defied the rest of the Western world’s approach, with Trump jokingly telling Putin to not meddle in the upcoming 2020 presidential election as it did during 2016.
The G20 was not just about Trump. Despite proposals by South Korean President Moon Jae-In, bilateral talks took place between Japan and South Korea did not take place; tensions between the two nations have continued to increase amid sentiment reparations of wartime forced labour in the Second World War. UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s meeting with Vladimir Putin opened on a cold handshake and rebukes over the “truly despicable” Salisbury poisonings and human rights in Russia.
FIT FOR PURPOSE?
With the G20’s lack of consensus decidedly prominent during the Osaka summit, this begs the question of whether the G20 is still relevant in an era of significant disagreement between members. The summit’s mission of achieving “strong, sustainable, achievable and balanced growth” is becoming increasingly precarious especially given the perceived erosion of internationalism and disparate beliefs of its members. Without undergoing substantial reform, the G20 risks being abandoned as an institution. Other high-profile multilateral summits and institutions, including the G7, the WTO, APEC and even parts of the UN are experiencing a period of stagnation and have been beset with issues over consensus over recent years. This continued lack of consensus not just within the G20 but in other summits and institutions could pose significant risks for the existing international order, emboldening other powers like China and Russia to continue constructing their own opposing institutions or expand existing ones such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and Eurasian Economic Union.
The G20’s reform efforts will have to address the characterisation that the institution, like many other multilateral fora and institutions, is unrepresentative. While the G20 is said to account for almost 90% of global GDP and two-thirds of the world’s population, there is a notable lack of representation from Southeast Asia and especially Africa — only South Africa is a fully-fledged member. Other institutions like ASEAN and the African Union do participate in the G20 to a degree, yet many of the world’s emerging economies continue to have limited opportunity to be a part of the talks. Any reform effort will need to address this, given that regions such as Africa are positioning themselves to be future economic powerhouses driven by strong population growth, low labour costs and access to resources. Without undertaking these and other structural changes, the G20 — like many other institutions — risks being replaced by new institutions or, in a world where liberal internationalism is increasingly viewed as obsolete and not fit for purpose, abandoned altogether.
Euan serves as an editor and analyst on Australian foreign policy, the Asia-Pacific region and international institutions. He specialises in analysing Australia’s political, security, diplomatic and developmental place in the Asia-Pacific region.