HAMBURG – The split among the Group of 20 economies at their weekend summit in Germany demonstrates that Japan must carefully position itself amid the changing dynamics of the diverse club.
The policies of U.S. President Donald Trump saw his country pitted against the rest of the G-20 on the Paris accord and its place in the global response to climate change, with last-minute efforts to find common ground capping what German Chancellor Angela Merkel described as two days of difficult discussions.
The high-profile gathering in Hamburg came at a critical juncture in global affairs as Trump’s commitment to his “America First” policy platform sparked talk of a global leadership vacuum. These unusual concerns tested the unity of the world’s 20 advanced and emerging economies.
“For a long time, the world was in search of integration, but this appears to be changing now. The global order is being challenged,” said Takushoku University professor Takashi Kawakami.
“This puts a sharper focus on where Japan is going to stand for survival,” the expert on diplomacy and security said.
The testing of North Korea’s first intercontinental ballistic missile fueled security concerns in the United States, Japan and their allies. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe again sought international cooperation to address the threat.
The G-20, however, did not mention North Korea in its joint declaration Saturday, despite being united against terrorism.
On economic issues, Japan turned to Europe to make a joint stand against protectionism by securing a broad agreement on free trade ahead of the summit, sending a clear signal to Trump, who has made clear his preference for bilateral rather than multilateral deals.
The Japan-Europe deal “was received positively because there have been gradual moves toward more protectionist steps,” one delegation source said, adding that many participants hailed the agreement.
Adding to the momentum, the G-20 leaders included an agreement to fight protectionism, a hard-won victory for host Germany and good news for Japan and the European Union, which together account for a third of the world economy.
Still, participants allowed wording to be inserted that approved “legitimate trade defense” steps against unfair practices, an inclusion interpreted as a concession to the Trump administration.
In bilateral talks on Saturday with Abe, Trump raised the issue of U.S. trade deficits with Japan but did not talk about the pursuit of a bilateral free trade agreement, much to the relief of Japanese policymakers.
“It’s always difficult to keep the proper distance from the United States,” said Hideo Kumano, chief economist at the Dai-ichi Life Research Institute.
“That said, the fact that there was no apparent mention of an FTA suggests Mr. Trump is more focused on forming a united front against North Korea with Japan and others.”
Kumano said the unity of the G-20 is expected to strengthen with the emergence of a “counterforce” to Trump’s policy agenda. “Under that framework, Japan has a role to play in free trade promotion.”
Abe left Germany to finish the rest of his six-nation European tour, giving him a further respite from the domestic scandals that have punished him in the opinion polls.
Trump, meanwhile, headed back to the United States and Twitter, where he posted that the G-20 summit was a “wonderful success.”
Whether Japan should position itself as being with the United States and Europe or other countries is a difficult choice, Takushoku University’s Kawakami said.
“Be it as an intermediary or as everybody’s friend. It may be one way for survival,” he added.