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28 October 2015

Speculation will inevitably rise ahead of China’s assumption of the G20 chair at the end of this year and its hosting of its first G20 summit in November 2016. However, the history of global summitry suggests we should avoid heaping too many expectations on a first-time host and instead brace ourselves for compromise, Hugo Dobson writes.

The Antalya Summit has not even begun in Turkey and already attention is shifting to China’s assumption of the G20 chair at the end of 2015 and its hosting of the eleventh G20 summit in Hangzhou in November 2016.

Although China hosted a meeting of the G20 finance ministers in 2005, this will be the first time for the G20 to meet in China since the elevation of this latest alphanumeric configuration of global governance to the leaders’ level in 2008 and its self-appointment as the ‘premier forum for international economic cooperation’ in 2010. So, inevitably expectations will rise over the next twelve months as to what kind of host China will be and what it might set out to achieve. In fact, the speculation has already begun – and I am equally guilty of contributing to this conjecture.

We could see China leading a more joined-up Asian approach to global summitry. We might witness the rolling out of a new development agenda. We could even observe China’s promotion of important structural reforms to the architecture of global governance. Or we might not. When engaging in this crystal-ball gazing, we should not lose sight of the fact that hosting a global summit is a challenge. This is especially the case when expectations of China specifically are so high but also when you are a first-time host.

Take two historical examples of when Asian countries have hosted high-profile global summits for the first time.

Japan welcomed the G7 to Asia for the first time in June 1979. A failed summit was not an option but the Japanese hosts faced competing demands and expectations. On the one hand, the Japanese government and its people regarded simply securing the role of host as an achievement of historic proportions as well as an opportunity to showcase the country and the region. To this end, a number of Southeast Asian countries petitioned the Japanese government to place regional development issues at the heart of the summit discussions. On the other hand, at a time when rising oil prices were causing global anxiety, the Japanese prime minister of the day, Ohira Masayoshi, emphasized the need for his fellow G7 leaders to reach some kind of coordinated response.

In the face of divergent approaches from the US and Europe, the final eleventh-hour negotiations struck a compromise resulting in targets for oil consumption that in the short term could be presented as a successful outcome but in the long run were largely ignored once the focus of media attention had moved on. The development agenda highlighted by Asian countries was relegated down the agenda and largely filtered through the oil issue.

Fast-forward to 2010. The honour of hosting the first G20 summit in Asia fell to novice South Korea. Once again, similar levels of pride were evident in the approach taken by the host as seen in President Lee Myung-bak’s statements conflating the success of the G20 with the success of the Korean people, references to the young people of Korea as the ‘G20 generation’, and speculation in the press that the Seoul Development Consensus could result in a Korean/Asian-style approach to development that consigned other models to the rubbish bin. Once again, these expectations were soon followed by back-peddling as the Korean hosts jettisoned the leadership role of representing Asia in favour of promoting a broader sense of solidarity among G20 members.

So, making initial grandiose claims only to tone them down when faced with the need to balance competing pressures appears to be a characteristic of hosting summits, especially for the first time.

In addition, the calendar of global summitry in 2016 works against a substantial breakthrough such as a coordinated Asian response. Japan has historically been ambivalent towards the expanded forum of the G20 and the recognition it accords to China’s position. To compound this ambivalence, in May 2016 Japan will host the G7, its preferred and more select global governance grouping that confirms Japan’s great power status and maintains its position as the only Asian representative.

Prime Minister Abe Shinzo is likely to use the opportunity to coordinate a united G7 response ahead of the G20 that emphasizes the core values of democracy, the rule of law and free market economics that define and legitimise the G7 but exclude China. At the same time, he is likely to continue pursuing what has become known as the ‘Abe Doctrine’ of ‘a defense posture less fettered by past anti-militaristic constraints, a more fully integrated US-Japan alliance, and an emphasis on “value-oriented” diplomacy with East Asian states and beyond’. This will obviously preclude a collaborative approach to the G20 with China and present a considerable obstacle for the Chinese hosts to negotiate when uniting what has always been an unwieldy and diverse forum.

So, it may not make for the most compelling of messages but ahead of the Hangzhou Summit let’s manage our expectations and just keep calm and carry on summit-watching.

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