OSAKA – One of the largest and most important gatherings of world leaders outside the U.N. General Assembly — the Group of 20 Leaders’ Summit — arrives in Japan for the first time ever this week, bringing with it over 30 presidents, prime ministers and leaders from international organizations.
Some 30,000 participants, including U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping, are expected to come to Osaka for the two-day meeting from Friday. Under the G20 process, Japan, as host nation, sets the agenda for discussions on specific economic and financial issues, as well as social and environmental matters that will range this year from health and women’s empowerment to climate change and dealing with marine plastic waste.
The impetus for the current G20 Summit was the global financial meltdown in 2008, when the leaders gathered to discuss how to prevent a similar crisis from happening again. And over the course of the years, the agenda has been broadened to include a more wide-ranging set of concerns and topics.
All G20 commitments are voluntary and not legally binding. But they serve as an indicator of the general policy direction of the member states on specific issues such as investing in developing countries, which energy sources are likely to be targeted for future development, what future investment opportunities might open up or expand in member states and what kinds of political decisions might be taken, in a broad sense.
For Japan, hosting this year’s G20 has proved to be a challenge. Normally, the host country has at least a full year between summits to prepare and work to get 20 countries — with their very different political and socioeconomic systems — to agree on the issues. But last year’s G20 Summit held in Buenos Aires was just over six months ago. In addition, the enthronement of the new emperor on May 1 monopolized much of the government’s attention, leaving questions about whether there has been enough time to reach substantive agreements on the agenda issues.
For this year, trade conflicts between the U.S. and China will be the hot topic as well as concerns that rising protectionist sentiment continues to pose a threat to growth in global trade.
“One of the most urgent tasks facing the G20 members is to regain confidence in the multilateral trading system, given the fact that trade tensions have started to weigh heavily on the prospects of growth,” Koji Tomita, the Japanese government representative for the G20 Summit, wrote in a personal commentary published on May 10 on the Association of Japanese Institutes of Strategic Studies website.
“Representing 80 percent of the global economy, the G20 members have to assume special responsibility by keeping their markets open,” he added.
One of the ways Japan hopes to restore international trust in multilateral trade is to win G20 approval for reform of the World Trade Organization in order to allow it to function better in areas like e-commerce, and that’s high on the agenda in Japan’s traditional commercial center of Osaka.
Another key topic will be how to deal with the global economy at a time of uncertain progress due to the rapid introduction of transformative technologies like the “internet of things” and artificial intelligence, Tomita said.
Other issues for discussion include women’s empowerment, which Tomita called a “key priority” on the agenda. Related to this is another priority for Japan, which is G20 efforts to address those member states’ whose populations, like Japan’s, are aging and declining.
With the G20 Ministerial Meeting on Energy Transitions and Global Environment for Sustainable Growth, which took place earlier this month, having agreed to a framework on how best to deal with the problem of marine plastic waste, such as the collecting and sharing of data, one of Japan’s major priority items will be to get a firm commitment from G20 leaders on moving forward on the issue. A recent government survey showed plastic waste was the top concern for respondents.
Then there are issues that could prove quite politically controversial for some participants.
This includes “quality infrastructure” investment, which generally refers to investments made by developed nations into developing countries. The investments include funding for such things as energy, agricultural and large-scale transportation or public works projects, which require a need for high levels of transparency, efficiency and accountability.
One of the reasons for concern about this issue is related to China’s “Belt and Road” initiative, the projects it is funding, and growing criticism that the projects being pursued are wasting money, have insufficient financial transparency, and are not benefiting the local populations for which they are supposedly intended to help.
With China a member of the G20, how other nations handle the discussions in Osaka on new standards for quality infrastructure so that a unanimous agreement is reached will be a crucial task for Japan.
Another issue likely to be particularly sensitive is that of climate change, which Tomita said was one of the key challenges for Japan because past G20 meetings have failed to come to unanimous agreements on what the group should do.
He called for “pragmatic” debates on the issue, though whether G20 members like the U.S., which decided to withdraw from the 2015 Paris agreement on climate change, would agree on Japan’s, and the world’s, definition of “pragmatic” remains to be seen.
Finally, there is an issue first raised by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, earlier this year, which is that of global data governance.
Worried that developments in cyberspace are widening the digital divide and the pace at which the virtual world is changing and merging with the physical world in the form of advanced artificial intelligence, Abe said he wanted to at least get the G20 to encourage debate on the issues involved.
This has proved to be extremely controversial, though, with the U.S., the European Union, and nations like China all having very different ideas on what should, or should not, be done. Meanwhile, nongovernment actors, including members of civil society as well as industry experts, have raised concerns about the implications from everything from privacy violations to data protection to the effect on e-commerce, an issue Tomita addressed.
“Although this may not be an easy undertaking, the matter is serious enough to merit the attention of world leaders, and Osaka could catalyze deeper and intensified global discussion in this area, including through creating strong momentum for the negotiation on electronic commerce within the framework of the WTO,” he wrote.
These are some of the main agenda items expected to receive much political and international media attention.
How much attention, though, could well depend on whether a sudden major political or financial crisis on the eve of the Osaka summit forces leaders to make a response.
Dealing with armed conflict between the U.S. and Iran, or even political pressure by other G20 members on China over demonstrators in Hong Kong, are two examples where the G20 could find itself forced to shorten discussions on a prearranged agenda.
With nearly a year and a half to go before the 2020 G20 Summit in Saudi Arabia, this year’s summit is expected to set the tone for next year’s discussions, which will take place in November, after the U.S. presidential election.
The Osaka summit thus offers Japan an opportunity to think farther into the future than might ordinarily be the case, and to help stimulate the other G20 members to do the same on issues that will continue to impact the economies, and the lives, of not only the 20 member states but the world at large.