Editorials

G20 summit succeeds, barely

Much rode on last weekend’s summit of Group of 20 nations. After last month’s Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders’ meeting failed to issue a communique for the first time, a second consecutive gathering that could not reach consensus would have sent tremors through markets and rattled the global economy. Fortunately, leaders of the 20 countries that represent two-thirds of the world population and 85 percent of the world’s wealth managed to find common ground. That is a low bar, but that may be all that is possible now. It also puts a burden on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who will host next year’s G20 meetings.

The joint statement issued at the end of the meeting noted that trade and investment are “important engines of growth” and that the multilateral trading system has made important contributions to that goal. The group reaffirmed its commitment to a “rules-based international order.” Significantly, the document did not mention protectionism, even though the fight against such measures has been a staple of G20 policy and pronouncements since its inception a decade ago in the wake of the global financial crisis. The group also acknowledged that the global trading system “is currently falling short of its objectives” and called for reform of the World Trade Organization so that it can better fulfill its role. Proposed remedies will be assessed at next year’s summit, which Japan will hold in Osaka.

The most discordant note was on climate change, where 19 countries — all save the United States — reaffirmed their commitment to the Paris climate accord, calling it “irreversible” and pledging their “full implementation.” A separate paragraph repeated the U.S. withdrawal, and restated Washington’s commitment to “utilizing all energy sources and technologies, while protecting the environment.” The convoluted language on climate change was one example of the singular U.S. role in the meeting. Previously, U.S. representatives led efforts to forge consensus at multilateral meetings. In the Trump administration, however, U.S. negotiators have been less interested in finding common ground than in protecting national prerogatives. They do not see concerted action as advancing the national interest, but instead view it as a way to restrict Washington’s freedom of maneuver. Reporting confirmed that the U.S. was the most problematic nation at the conclave, fighting to prevent mention of protectionism in the document and pushing for “minimalist” language on migration.

Important discussions occurred on the sidelines. The most important of them was the meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping, at which the two men agreed to “a truce” in their trade war. The specter of the world’s two largest economies leveling progressively higher tariffs against the other’s products loomed over last weekend’s meeting and the prospect of a halt — and it is only a ceasefire while negotiators try to forge a permanent deal — was greeted with relief. Agreement is not guaranteed, however. We must hope that cooler, more reasoned heads prevail.

Two other issues and personalities were prominent at the enclave. The first was Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was called out by other attendees for the seizure of Ukrainian Navy vessels and their crews the previous weekend. That scuttled his meeting with Trump, and European leaders pressed Putin to find a solution with his Ukrainian counterparts. The second personality was Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who is accused of involvement in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Several leaders urged him to conduct a full, credible and transparent investigation. One of the most jarring images of the meeting was that of a “high five” between Putin and the Saudi prince when they met.

Abe also held a series of bilateral meetings. He met Xi and urged him to take measures to address China’s unfair trade practices. Abe also invited Xi to visit Japan next year. In a meeting with Putin, the two men agreed to establish a mechanism to negotiate a bilateral peace treaty, with the first sit-down to be held before Abe visits Russia next month. Abe is said to favor reaching the outlines of a deal by next year’s G20 meeting.

Abe also met Trump, and while the U.S. president applauded Tokyo’s efforts to redress the trade deficit that favors Japan — such as purchasing defense equipment from the U.S. and increasing investment there — he pushed him to do more. There is concern in Tokyo that Washington will increase pressure on Japan next year when bilateral trade talks begin in earnest; the truce in the dispute with China has also raised fears that Trump will turn his full attention to the relationship with Japan.

World leaders are relieved, having avoided a second consecutive failed meeting. Now it is up to Japan to take up the reins as chair and begin the process of reinvigorating the G20. Abe must help restore the commitment to free and fair trade and to multilateralism. It is a daunting assignment, and he should begin immediately.