G20 summit in Hangzhou: as “useless” as the ASEAN meetings?

Leaders pose for pictures during the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China September 4, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

By Loke Hoe Yeong

Last week (4-5 September), China put on a big show for the G20 summit in Hangzhou, reminiscent of the international attention it received for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. No effort was spared to prepare the city for the meeting, touted as the one of biggest gathering of world leaders on Chinese soil, for some time.

It showed that China was hosting a meeting, the spirit of which was aimed at international cooperation – an important point for China to score, especially as developments like its increasing assertiveness on the South China Sea issue is being seen by some of its neighbours as a growing threat.

One of the outcomes of the G20 summit was its members’ agreement to “civilise capitalism”. By this, they mean that they would seek to jumpstart economic growth while also addressing growing public scepticism about free trade and more generally about globalisation. But what does that entail exactly? Nothing terribly new had been proposed or was agreed to.

What the world remembers the meeting for are its photo ops, in particular the sight of the 20-plus world leaders sharing the stage. A picture perfect moment of global harmony, if a stale one. Then there was also the alleged snub of US President Barack Obama by the Chinese at his landing at Hangzhou airport, which took place without the red-carpet welcome that other world leaders got for the G20 event.

In other words, the G20 summit is not chiefly remembered for earth-shattering communiques that would change the world – that is, not after the first G20 summit in 2008 that sought to address the global finance crisis.

What is the real purpose of the G20? What impact does it have, if at all, for China and the Asian region?

What were the achievements from Hangzhou?

The biggest achievement of the summit was perhaps the ratification, at last, of last year’s Paris agreement on tackling climate change, by the US and China. This took place right ahead of the full G20 summit.

The example set by the two major powers did not really spark a greater following among the other G20 members though. The communique from the summit did not commit its members to ratifying the Paris agreement by any set deadline, nor a deadline to phasing out fossil fuel subsidies.

But the achievement is still on the trajectory of progress. The climate change talks had stalled for some time prior to last year’s Paris deal, and so what happened in Paris was more than commendable. It is even more a signal achievement that the world’s two superpowers can now see eye to eye on a topic of major global concern such as climate change.

That should set the tone for how they can continue cooperating on other issues – remember that the two powers have been increasingly caught up acrimoniously in the South China Sea disputes.

Otherwise, the outcomes of the conversations in Hangzhou were of a rather scattered nature. It was really the forum for the leaders of 20 (and other) countries to discuss issues of the day, as they crop up.

The Hangzhou summit provided British Prime Minister Theresa May the occasion for her international debut. Besides addressing the bugbear that is Brexit, it was also her chance to address China’s frustrations over her decision to review the Hinkley Point nuclear project, which China had invested much in. China’s President Xi Jinping said he would be “patient” with the British government’s review of the nuclear project.

The context of the G20, and its relevance to China, Asia

The G20 first came to prominence in 2008, as the preferred forum for addressing the global financial crisis which had just struck Wall Street, and then spread eastwards towards Europe. It had existed for some years already, but the summit of heads of government and of state was only initiated in 2008.

The G20 also largely displaced the G7 – which spent some years as the G8 with Russia in it, which was then booted out after the Ukrainian conflict – as the forum of choice for resolving international challenges. The G7 still exists – the grouping consists of largely Western countries, plus Japan. The membership of this elite club was chosen partly because it represented the larger economies of the world – but largely of the year 1975, when it was founded.

How things have changed. With the rise of the so-called “Asian century”, it was getting patently clear that it was not the club of the largest economies – where was China? How about the rising middle power that is South Korea?

And so, the G7 began to look like an anachronism that had to be fixed. Its problem of representativeness looked a bit like the permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council – UK, US, China, Russia, France: basically the victors of World War II, but perhaps less relevant an achievement in today’s vastly different world.

G20: relegated to an ASEAN-type meeting, but still important

The G20 is, perhaps then, starting to look like ASEAN meetings. That is manifestly not a bad thing.

ASEAN has had the ability to get countries in Asia to coalesce, in particular the convening of China, Japan and South Korea – which would not normally think about gathering among the three of them, given historical antagonisms that continue to this day, let alone with the rest of the Asian region.

That ebullience may be fraying with the faultlines within ASEAN exposed with the intensification of the South China Sea dispute. The G20 seems to provide that same platform too. And indeed, the ASEAN summit of leaders and its partners in Vientiane, Laos segued naturally after the G20 Hangzhou summit.

After all, a world where the G20 can contribute towards its governance is better that a G-zero, leaderless world, or a purely G2-run world involving just US and China.