Japan has just hosted a big gathering of world leaders at country’s third largest city Osaka. The two day summit had attracted leaders of 19 G 20 members as well as the head of the European Union, which is the 20th member of the alliance of the rich and powerful. In addition, leaders of eight other countries representing various regional blocks and representatives of nine international bodies, including the United Nations, were also invited to join the discussions. The main discussions were among the twenty core members of the informal alliance that came into existence after the 2008 global financial crisis.
This was the first time for Japan to host the G 20 summit. The country in the past had hosted at least six of G 7 or G 8 annual summits, the first of which was back in 1979. Hence, Tokyo has both – experience and expertise in handling a gathering of most the leaders of most powerful countries of the world. Despite such expertise, the Osaka summit also resulted in disruption of normal life of the people living in the region in a massive way. Security was tightened for ensuring the safety of leaders joining the summit, causing disruption of public transport system, particularly for road transport. However, in the end everything went smoothly and the leadership of Japan felt happy for the conclusions reached at the summit. But this is only an overt outcome.
Like the smaller set up of G 7, G 20 also is an informal alliance and whatever conclusions the participating countries reach are not binding for the members, neither they are mandatory for others outside the alliance. Hence, despite the sweet tones reflected in wordings of the texts of final declarations and joint statements, the question remains about their application in real life. Moreover, as informal bodies like G 20 need to reach a consensus among participating nations before adopting the final statements, the documents in most cases remain vague and water downed. Osaka Summit was also not an exception.
The leaders’ declaration had touched two important issues, those of world trade and environmental disaster in the form of plastic pollution contaminating oceans. On trade matters the declaration proclaimed, “We strive to realize a free, fair, non-discriminatory, transparent, predictable and stable trade and investment environment and to keep our markets open.” It is worth noting that nothing has been said about protectionist policies and unilateral punitive actions being taken by individual countries. No doubt, objections were raised from countries practicing such harmful policies and hence the leaders had to find out correct wordings that can be interpreted in various ways. Moreover, the term free and fair trade is self explanatory that also account for non-discriminatory and transparent. However, each wording separately had to be inserted in the final declaration for the sake of reaching a consensus, which in the end made the document vague and superficial. Despite such a drawback, some progress has obviously been made at the summit and much of that had been the outcome of bilateral negotiations that went on at the sideline.
A much bold and clear position of the participating nations was reflected in the leaders’ declaration over environmental issues. G 20 members agreed to implement “Osaka Blue Ocean Vision”, a Japanese initiative that calls for aiming to reduce additional pollution by marine plastic litter to zero by 2050. Though it sounds bold and timely, going through the text might reveal the fact that the important point missing here is any commitment for cleaning up the already heavily polluted waters of the oceans of the world. Reducing additional pollution means controlling further pollution and for that the target year 2050 is a long shot goal.
The leaders also discussed a number of other issues including free data flow and digital economy as well as women’s empowerment, and made a number of recommendations, which too are non-binding. For the women’s empowerment discussion, G 20 invited a number of leading figures from around the world to participate. Conspicuously absent was Bangladesh, which in recent years has made significant progress in empowering women. Our leadership could have been a part of the outreach delegation for this year’s G 20, if we could successfully pursue the host nation over this issue with confidence. However, it is now already a matter of the past and at the press conference at the conclusion of the special discussion on Women Empowerment, Queen Maxima of the Netherland reminded the press of the commitments made by G 20 leaders, including that of Saudi Arabia, to pave the way for ensuring equal participation of women in all aspects of the society.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had a busy schedule in Osaka as he met separately with most of the leaders joining the summit, in addition to his task of presiding the main sessions. Abe had one to one discussion with the leaders of 26 of 27 countries joining the summit. The only exception was South Korea. Despite the request from South Korean delegation for a bilateral meeting, Abe refused to see President Moon Jae-in before, during or even after the summit. Japan-South Korea relationship is going through a turbulent period over the issue of South Korean judiciary’s ruling against a number of Japanese companies to pay compensation for wartime labor. Japan is also unhappy over Seoul’s position on comfort women. This must have prompted Abe to resort to such a hard line standing. He and his advisers might also have thought that this would isolate South Korea and make the leadership of the country looking powerless. However, all the pomp and glitter of Osaka was hijacked from Abe right after the conclusion of the summit as Moon Jae-in accompanied Donald Trump to the dividing line between two Koreas. This sad episode for Japan reminds us once again that in diplomacy nothing can replace the need for a careful calculation.
As I was finishing writing this column, news came of Japan’s tightening of regulations on the export to South Korea of chemicals used for chip and smart phone production. The striking fact is; the decision has been made just a couple of days after the leaders at G 20 Osaka Summit called for implementing free, fair, non-discriminatory and transparent trade practices.
(Tokyo, July 2, 2019)