National / Politics | G20 Osaka

For G20 host Abe, election hopes ride on summit success

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

Just seven months after their last meeting in Argentina, leaders of the Group of 20 nations gather in Osaka this week to once again take up issues ranging from global trade to dealing with maritime plastic waste.

What kind of agreement they reach and whether they even reach one on all the issues could determine the direction of the G20 as an international forum and impact the domestic political fortunes of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The Osaka G20 summit, one of the largest gatherings of world leaders outside the United Nations General Assembly, will bring together over 30 presidents, prime ministers and heads of international organizations for two days of talks on Friday and Saturday. Some 30,000 participants are expected for the G20 — the first to be held in Japan.

In addition, all eyes will be on key bilateral meetings to be held during the summit. Drawing the most attention will be the one between U.S. President Donald Trump, who has formally announced his re-election bid, and Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who paid a visit to North Korea last week, as the world’s two largest economies seek to resolve a festering trade war.

On the eve of the summit, there was cautious optimism internationally that some sort of solution might be found, with both Beijing and Washington sending positive signals about the prospects for a successful Trump-Xi meeting.

For Abe, the G20 host, the summit comes at a critical time politically, with the Upper House election about a month away. Deft diplomacy will be needed to reach agreements on global economic issues among the 20 member states at a time of rising protectionist sentiment worldwide and a backlash within some states against multilateral forums, which are blamed by those of different political stripes for worsening wealth gaps and social divisions and contributing to environmental destruction.

“At the Osaka Summit, Japan is determined to lead global economic growth by promoting free trade and innovation, achieving both economic growth and reduction in disparities, and contributing to the development agenda and other global issues with the [United Nations] Sustainable Development Goals at its core,” Abe said in a statement published in a briefing paper on the gathering released last week by the University of Toronto’s G20 Research Group.

Past G20 summits show that reaching agreement on pretty much everything is difficult at best, given the members’ wide-ranging political and economic systems. This year, with U.S.-China trade tensions and the looming Brexit crisis dominating headlines and political debate, it’s doubtful that a strong consensus on multilateral trade can be reached by the G20.

As for Abe, in addition to his role as host, he is expected to hold key bilateral meetings with Trump, Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin, among others, where trade and, in Russia’s case, the disputed islands off Hokkaido, will be discussed.

Abe’s handling of the summit, bilateral talks and how both are perceived by his ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the public could give the prime minister a popularity boost heading into the election in July. Poor results, on the other hand, will trigger questions about whether he is the best choice to continue leading the LDP and Japan.

While trade typically forms a crucial part of every G20 summit, it is still just one of many items on the agenda. And although trade as an issue remains contentious, and the bilateral meetings will make headlines, John Kirton, director of the G20 Research Group, says he is optimistic overall that progress will be made in many areas.

“Yes, the Trump-Xi negotiations will draw a lot of interest. But Japan has set a very broad and innovative agenda for the Osaka summit, and I think that it will be, substantially, a success and that Japan will obtain agreement on the agenda items,” he said in a telephone interview with The Japan Times.

There are a number of priority topics that will be discussed in Osaka. These include reform of the World Trade Organization, especially to create new rules and regulations to govern current and future forms of e-commerce. Japan has already won support for the idea from members including Argentina, host of last year’s summit, and Italy, which will host it in two years’ time.

The prime minister also wants the G20 to endorse an effort he has dubbed the “Osaka Track.” With the data-driven economy creating new challenges, especially in terms of fair taxation of multinational companies and freedom of access, Abe is using the Osaka Track discussions to advocate a solution based on a new set of international rules regarding the free flow of electronic data.

“Abe brought up the idea of an Osaka Track at the Davos meeting earlier this year and I don’t think he would have done so if he didn’t feel he could get an agreement with the other leaders,” Kirton said.

Such talk, however, has raised international concerns about privacy.

In its recommendations on the digital economy hand-delivered to Abe in April, Civil Society 20 (C20), which includes leaders from Japanese and international civil society groups, supported a global framework on data — but only one with strong rules to prevent a variety of abuses by governments and tech firms.

“G20 leaders should explore adopting a framework to protect privacy, personal data, consent, the right to information and human rights in the digital world,” the C20 said in a statement. “Principles and guidelines that protect the rights of workers, farmers, youth and women in digitalization of manufacturing, agriculture and services should be adopted.”

Another subject up for discussion is plastic waste, especially the marine variety.

At the G20 Environmental Ministers’ meeting earlier this month, a new international framework to collect and share data on such waste was reached, with the goal of identifying best practices for eventually dealing with the problem on a regional or global scale. While the leaders will likely adopt what their environment ministers agreed upon, the question in Osaka is whether they will go further and discuss financing of the framework.

Other areas for discussion include climate change, social and technological innovations for dealing with graying societies, quality infrastructure development, women’s empowerment and global health issues, especially the creation of universal health care.

With all these issues, the agenda for Osaka G20 is already packed. What is unknown, however, is whether political developments elsewhere, such as the threat of war between the U.S. and Iran or the extradition demonstrations in Hong Kong, will be brought up by other leaders, leaving less time to discuss the formal agenda. China, however, has said it will not allow discussion of the Hong Kong protests.

In addition, a sudden economic or financial crisis on the eve of the summit could force leaders to consult and then issue a statement, resulting in final agreements on the main agenda that use weak language or merely repeat what was agreed to at a previous meeting because there was not enough time to cover them in detail.

More than a decade has passed since G20 leaders began gathering, during which time the agenda has grown to encompass ever-more topics. The broad range of items up for discussion at the Osaka summit is likely to expand their responsibilities further, even as strengthening bilateral and multilateral trade and finance regimes remains the key mission of the body’s process.

First in a series on key topics likely to be discussed at the Group of 20 summit