National | ANALYSIS

G20 world leaders agree on some issues, but significant gaps remain following Osaka summit

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

The outcome of the Group of 20 leaders’ summit in Osaka showed there are risks to holding multiple major gatherings over a relatively short time span, particularly when several meaty topics are on the docket, and then trying to forge unanimous agreement over just two days among countries that at times have vastly differing views on each issue.

Leaders reached a consensus on topics ranging from the global economy to plastic waste. But climate change, where French opposition to efforts by the U.S. to water down language committing members to the 2015 Paris climate agreement, nearly derailed the conference on the first day.

In the end, though, John Kirton, founder and director of the G20 Research Group at the University of Toronto, called the Osaka summit a broad, sustainable success.

“The summit featured important achievements on its central, controversial issues of trade and meaningful advances on many subjects of social and ecological sustainability and security. Only on the critical challenge of controlling the climate crisis did it fail to do enough to meet the urgent need,” he said.

A tired-looking Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took the podium at a news conference Saturday afternoon after the two-day summit, saying it was difficult to find solutions, in one stroke, to a host of global challenges including support for multilateral trade, data governance and climate change.

That was especially evident this year.

In the past, G20 summits were held about a year apart, leaving ample time for politicians and diplomats in the host nation, as well as nonstate actors in the G20, such as business lobbies, labor organizations, think tanks and civil society members in each country, to negotiate the most ambitious agreement possible.

The Osaka summit, however, came just seven months after the last one in Buenos Aires. Only at the closing session of that summit in December did Abe reveal, briefly, the agenda for the Osaka summit. This, he said, included the promotion of free trade, global health, climate change and women’s empowerment.

Just over a month later, Abe startled many involved with Osaka G20 preparations with an announcement at the World Economic Forum meeting that global data governance was on the agenda. The prime minister said he wanted to start discussions at the G20 on a new regime for global data governance he called the “Osaka Track” that, under the World Trade Organization, would promote the free flow of data across borders and prevent any one nation from hoarding its data.

“We must, on one hand, be able to put our personal data and data embodying intellectual property, national security intelligence, and so on, under careful protection, while on the other hand, we must enable the free flow of medical, industrial, traffic and other most useful, nonpersonal, anonymous data to see no borders, repeat, no borders,” Abe said.

“A lot of us were taken aback by Abe’s Davos speech, not quite knowing what he meant and not having expertise in data governance,” said Masaki Inaba, one of the leaders of Civil Society 20 (C20) Japan, a group of NGOs involved in the summit. “We had to quickly study the issues involved with this late addition to the G20 Osaka agenda.”

But there were other pressing domestic issues Japan faced before June. By March, political attention was consumed by April’s nationwide local elections. Even greater political and bureaucratic efforts were spent on the logistics of a smooth imperial transition in late April. This left even less time for Japan to work with G20 nations on reaching international consensus on the agenda for the Osaka summit.

At the same time, overseas, the Brexit debate and the failure of U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May to forge a deal led to her resignation, while the U.S. remained resistant to a strong G20 position on multilateral trade. Nor did the U.S. show any inclination on cooperating with the other 19 members on climate, with U.S. President Donald Trump having announced Washington’s withdrawal from the 2015 Paris agreement, which commits the world to holding any rise in the earth’s temperature to 1.5 degrees C this century.

All of these developments contributed to a less-than-ambitious result in key areas.

The Osaka leaders’ declaration contained no specific mention of battling protectionism — a phrase rejected by the United States. On climate change, the statement was a virtual repeat of the agreement in Buenos Aires, with the other 19 members specifically committed to the Paris agreement, but the U.S. only obliged to simply continue reducing its own greenhouse gas emissions.

On the other hand, the inclusion of Abe’s signature initiative of launching the “Osaka Track” for digital data flows “with trust” got high marks from Kirton.

“Almost all G20 leaders, including Donald Trump and (Chinese President) Xi Jinping, agreed to launch this process for rules-based multilateral trade liberation by providing a highest level political push to the World Trade Organization’s e-commerce negotiations, aiming for substantial progress by June 2030,” he said.

However, the G20 agreed only to further facilitate the free flow of data while still respecting domestic legal frameworks that may limit them. Abe’s proposal drew skepticism or outright opposition from India and South Africa, as well as China. These nations have their own data governance systems and want to maintain control over them.

Another piece of good news for Japan’s leadership was fairly enthusiastic G20 support, at least rhetorically, for the “Osaka Blue Ocean Vision.”

This was included in the final statement and won praise from delegates and international environmental NGOs as a good start in addressing the problem of marine plastic waste as the initiative commits to reducing additional marine plastic litter to zero by 2050.

“The G20 is united on the concept of an ‘Osaka Blue’ vision to deal with marine plastic waste, a problem that cannot be solved by just a few countries,” Abe said, adding Japan would provide assistance in waste management and human resources development in developing countries.

But in the end, a major reason for the weak Osaka declaration may have to do with Abe’s emphasis on personal diplomacy, especially with Trump. In one sense, that’s understandable. The G20 does not pass legally binding agreements. But unanimous consensus must be reached on the final statement, making it crucial that everybody from Trump to Xi agrees to the final edited text presented by the host nation.

Nevertheless, delegates from several European and Asian nations and several NGOs expressed frustration on issues like support for international trade and climate change in particular, saying that Abe and Japan, in their quest for a G20 consensus on extremely difficult issues, were too accommodating to the demands of the U.S. in particular.

“Perhaps there are limits to what an emphasis on harmony can achieve, especially in the area of the politics of a G20 summit,” said Bernadette Victorio, an Oxfam representative based in Cambodia who attended the Osaka summit.

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