Commentary / Japan

What a difference a day makes after the G20

by Kuni Miyake

Just as I was appearing live on TV Saturday morning, the world learned that U.S. President Donald Trump had tweeted: “After some very important meetings, including my meeting with President Xi of China, I will be leaving Japan for South Korea (with President Moon). While there, if Chairman Kim of North Korea sees this, I would meet him at the Border/DMZ just to shake his hand and say Hello(?)!” As a former diplomat, it was an extremely uncomfortable moment for me.

The reason was simple. I was so stunned and then dubious about the uncanny tweet that I became speechless for a moment in the middle of a Saturday morning news show. In the program, we were reviewing the Group of 20 summit in Osaka but, even at the end of the show, I could not imagine that a Trump-Kim handshake would ever take place.

No matter how impulsive and intuitive Trump might have been, it was the first visit by a sitting president of the United States into the North Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone. I don’t challenge its historic importance. I wonder, however, if this third but potentially only symbolic U.S.-North Korea summit should eclipse the significance of the Osaka G20 summit.

“The Osaka G20,” I said on the program, “was a great success.” The first multilateral summit Japan hosted was the 1979 Group of Seven summit in Tokyo, a year after I joined the Foreign Ministry. Japan was a gracious host but not necessarily a great chair. Forty years later in Osaka, Japan was truly an active player in an extended multilateral summit.

The G20 is much more complicated than the G7. While the number of participants increases in an arithmetic progression, the organizational confusion multiplies in a geometric progression. In addition to this logistical nightmare, the chair also faces substantive difficulties in winning the unanimous consent of the participants.

Fortunately, I could get a press ID from the secretariat to directly cover, from inside the venue compound, the first G20 summit that Osaka hosted. I share with dear readers my take on some of the most significant diplomatic events during the summit before

I get back to the U.S.-North Korea summit meeting at the DMZ.

G20 leaders’ declaration

The declaration stated, “We strive to realize a free, fair, non-discriminatory, transparent, predictable and stable trade and investment environment, and to keep our markets open.” It must have taken Japanese diplomats a hectic 48 hours or more to reach this simple sentence. A job well done indeed!

Reportedly the U.S. wanted to insert the word “fair” and was opposed to “anti-protectionism,” while China insisted on “non-discriminatory” in the final text. Thus the leaders’ declaration has been watered down year by year. Osaka may well be the last G20 summit to produce a meaningful declaration document.

Most noteworthy was the reference to marine pollution. The paper for the first time stated, “We share, and call on other members of the international community to also share, as a common global vision, the “Osaka Blue Ocean Vision” that we aim to reduce additional pollution by marine plastic litter to zero by 2050.”

U.S.-China summit

As we could easily predict, Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping only agreed to disagree. China could not agree on a comprehensive trade deal because it would only hurt the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party. The U.S. could not continue this “game of chicken,” which might send a wrong signal to the international markets.

Resuming working-level negotiations, however, will not lead to a successful conclusion. The U.S. presidential election season has started and Beijing can wait and see what happens to Trump’s presidency next year. For Washington, trade is just a part of the hegemonic rivalry between the two major powers.

Japan-U.S. summit

What drew the most media attention in Tokyo was not the outcome of the bilateral meeting, but Trump’s critical view of the Japan-U.S. security treaty. In his news conference Trump officially stated that while he was “not thinking about” withdrawing from the treaty “at all,” he considered the treaty to be “an unfair agreement.” Japan’s mainstream media immediately reported: “Shocking Trump remarks to nullify the security treaty” and “Abe has no objection to revising the treaty.” Although what Trump considered to be unfair was only that Japan cannot come to the aid of the U.S. when it is under attack, unfortunately, the damage was done.

Japan-South Korea summit

What was missing was a summit meeting between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Japan was polite to the South Korean president as an Osaka G20 participant, but did not give him a chance to officially meet his Japanese counterpart before, during or even after the summit.

To my great surprise, the Japanese press raised little criticism about this treatment. Tokyo is growing sick and tired of President Moon’s behavior and attitude toward Japan. Everyone had thought that the South Korean president was isolated and powerless, but he isn’t anymore after Trump’s visit to South Korea.

Getting back to the U.S.-North Korea summit, on Sunday Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un not only met and shook hands but even held private talks for 50 minutes at the DMZ. When I watched them live on CNN, I thought of the beautiful song by 1959 Grammy Award winner Dinah Washington: “What a difference a day makes.”

During the morning TV program, I said the following. “This is not the kind of diplomacy I am used to. This could only be a purely political performance by Trump. Everyone in the administration, except the president himself, might have been taken by surprise. The real issue now is whether Kim really wants to denuclearize North Korea.”

Whether you like it or not, this was the difference that a mere 24 hours made following the end of the Osaka G20 summit. All politics is result-oriented but so far I don’t see the kind of skillful and sophisticated leadership from the United States that we were once used to. As Trump always says, we may have no choice but to sigh and say, “We’ll see, folks!”

Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies.

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