OSAKA – Tensions over trade and climate change simmered Friday as the Group of 20 summit commenced in Osaka.
The two-day summit brings together 37 presidents, prime ministers, and heads of international organizations.
It opens as world leaders are expressing increased concern over potential damage to the world economy if a trade war escalates between the United States and China, and over growing protectionist sentiment in many G20 member states where multilateral forums like the G20 are blamed for job loss and wealth inequality.
In addition, anger among some countries, France in particular, over attempts by the United States to weaken language approved at past summits on the importance of the 2015 Paris agreement on climate change is likely to create a headache for Japan.
As the G20 host — in charge of forging a final agreement — Prime Minister Shinzo Abe faces the task of placating U.S. President Donald Trump, who pulled the U.S. out of the Paris agreement, and the rest of the G20, which insists on strong group support for the agreement’s goal of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.
The leaders seemed only slightly more aligned on issues related to trade and the global economy, which they met to discuss on Friday afternoon.
Japanese officials said a number of countries indicated significant worries about the world economy, with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker all expressing concern and calling on Trump and Xi to work things out rather than risk economic disaster by seeing the U.S. apply further tariffs on Chinese goods.
On the other hand, reform of the World Trade Organization, a long-held goal for Tokyo, seems on track to make some progress Saturday, with a number of G20 members committed to the idea of revising and updating WTO rules to take e-commerce into account.
Innovation, the digital economy and artificial intelligence were also discussed Friday. Abe is pushing for G20 approval of what he called the “Osaka Track” for digital data governance, which would allow electronic data to freely cross borders rather than being kept, and possibly hoarded, in one location.
“Development of the digital economy leads to innovation in a variety of social sectors, and freedom of data is essential, as is securing the trust of consumers and companies on over privacy and security issues,” Abe told the leaders Friday.
“To promote the creation of international rules for the maximum use of data is what I propose under the ‘Osaka Track,'” he added.
But given deep differences between member states on the idea of international data transfer, how that Osaka Track will proceed — or the extent to which agreement can be reached to even talk about it — remained unclear.
Japan’s leadership was also questioned by environmental groups, who expressed disappointment after reports Friday that the U.S. had been pressing the host nation to weaken the summit’s wording regarding the Paris agreement.
Differences over agreements on climate change as well as the Paris agreement have plagued the G20 for the past two years since the U.S. decision to withdraw from the 2015 climate pact.
“What is under discussion in Osaka on climate change is not ambitious, and the language being considered is very weak. The G20 needs to provide irreversible support for the Paris agreement,” said Kimiko Hirata, international director of Kiko Network, an environmental group working on climate change.