Prospects and Possibilities for Japan’s 2019 G20 Osaka Summit

Picture: Osaka SkylineWe hosted a one-day international conference at Soka University in Tokyo on December 10, 2018, on the theme “Prospects and Possibilities for Japan’s 2019 G20 Osaka Summit.” This was held shortly after the inauguration of the Japanese Presidency of the Group of Twenty (G20), which will be compressed by holding an early summit, on 28-29 June 2019. Conference participants stressed their doubts about the capacities of the G20 to meet contemporary global governance challenges, especially due to failures to implement previous summit commitments and the growing tensions between members. They emphasized the important role of stakeholders in holding the G20 to account, by focusing on policy compliance and implementation.

The event brought together international and Japanese scholars, representatives from the Think20 (T20) and Women20 (W20) official G20 engagement forums, and diplomats and officials from member states and international organizations. Panel discussions focused on the G20’s role in global governance, especially since its inaugural summit in November 2008, during the global financial crisis (GFC). There were also thematic panels on the key issues of G20 economic governance, gender governance, and climate, energy, and sustainability governance. Two further sessions focused on the prospects and possibilities for Japan’s G20 Presidency. The conference was organized by the Soka University Peace Research Institute, in collaboration with the G20 Research Group of the University of Toronto; Griffith Asia Institute at Griffith University; and the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA).

G20’s role in global governance

One conclusion from these discussions was that the G20’s role has substantially shifted over the past decade, from crisis cooperation to an increasingly complex policy agenda. Some participants emphasized its importance as a global governance “hub,” guiding interactions between diverse global actors and organizations on several policy areas. There was greater skepticism about whether the G20 constituted a ‘club,’ whether multilateral or plurilateral, the latter emphasizing legitimacy concerns about its restrictive membership. This was due to the perception, among some speakers, that normative divergence undermined the potential for a collective G20 sense of ‘we-ness’ as a like-minded club; however, others also indicated the growing normative divergence among Group of Seven (G7) members since 2016. Arguably, even the smaller number of BRICS members only share a normative commitment to gaining a greater voice in global governance.

G20’s growing agenda and new actors

Conference participants noted that the G20 agenda greatly expanded over the past decade, especially due to the influence of non-G7 member states. South Korea’s G20 Presidency in 2010, which included economic development, was considered the key moment when the forum’s agenda began to diversify beyond the initial priorities of its leading wealthy states, centered on financial governance reform and an economic recovery strategy during the GFC. Policy areas such as food security, employment, climate change, and gender economic equity were subsequently incorporated in the agenda, especially through the host presidencies of Mexico, Russia, Turkey, China, and Argentina. Important G20 contributions also were noted from Australia and Canada, the latter especially on gender equity issues; and from cooperating international organizations, such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. A couple of speakers debated the potential for a greater focus on security at the G20, whether conceived in conventional military terms or linked more broadly to climate, food, energy, and other issues. This indicated how the forum influenced both narrower and broader dimensions of global security, though it remains significantly less of a focus than economic governance.

There was some debate about how the G20’s agenda expansion influenced its efficiency and legitimacy, in terms of its organizational capacity to progress on a range of policy issues, hence efficiency effects; but, also, legitimacy gains from the G20 prioritizing broader issues, many of them priorities for developing-state members. This issue has been a point of contention among G20 stakeholders and experts since the GFC; arguably, the expanded G20 agenda has become too established for any significant reduction to be feasible, absent another crisis, which could lead to a narrower focus in future. Another key legitimacy and efficiency issue was the restricted G20 membership, and trade-offs between size and coordination capacities.

Several participants stressed the importance of intensifying efforts to enhance summit commitment compliance, a growing topic of debate in recent years. There have been some notable G20 failures to comply with summit commitments, including the failure to implement the fossil-fuel subsidy phase-out, pledged at its Pittsburgh Summit of September 2009. Conference speakers noted the value of the compliance analysis and reports from the G20 Research Group at the University of Toronto and RANEPA in Moscow. One speaker noted the data indicated that holding ministerial meetings tended to raise G20 compliance scores in related policy areas. This might encourage future host presidencies to continue to increase the number of G20 ministerials, a trend among recent host presidencies.

On the significance of the official G20 engagement forums and other forms of outreach, participants indicated the public diplomacy benefits from these activities. Some contextualized G20 outreach within the broader global governance trend since the 1990s of increasing engagement with non-state or civil society actors. One speaker perceived a new normative principle of growing inclusivity in global governance, though several noted that the role of engagement groups like the Civil20, T20, and W20 remains ambiguous, and their forms of engagement and composition rather arbitrary.

Japan’s G20 Presidency

One important issue was the truncated time-frame for Japan’s G20 Presidency, due to the Osaka Summit being held in June, seemingly to avoid the busy schedule later in the year, with the new emperor’s enthronement ceremony on October 22. Many participants at our conference, as well as at the T20’s Inception Conference in Tokyo on December 4-5, argued that the effectively-shortened presidency meant there should be greater emphasis on implementing the existing policy agenda, rather than adding new topics. The G20, as well as the T20 and other engagement groups, would have little time to develop ambitious new proposals or conduct new research.

The conference included discussions of Japan’s G20 policy agenda. It was noted that only half the scheduled ministerial meetings would occur before the Osaka Summit, which might diminish progress on issue areas where relevant ministerials were held afterwards. Japanese priorities for the summit would include, for the Sherpa Track, free trade, science and technological innovation, quality infrastructure investment for development, global health, climate change, aging populations, and promoting the Sustainable Development Goals. The Finance Track would prioritize debt sustainability and transparency, plus focus on the effects of immigration and demographic shifts on the tax base. This would constitute a continuation of key aspects of the existing G20 agenda, with some new focus on demographic issues such as aging and migration. The Buenos Aires Summit leaders’ declaration emphasized World Trade Organization reform, so the Japanese agenda on promoting free trade would likely be influenced by this inherited issue.

One speaker said that the Argentine G20 Presidency had been “bottom-up” in its agenda deliberations, incorporating suggestions and policy priorities from G20 stakeholders. It was noted that the Japanese have been more “top-down” in constructing their agenda for the Osaka Summit. However, as experienced by the Australians in 2014, when trying to narrow the scope of the agenda to their core priorities for the Brisbane Summit, it is sometimes difficult to keep tight control of the G20 agenda. This top-down approach might also be counter-productive, if it undermines cooperation or decreases constructive policy inputs from G20 stakeholders.

G20 challenges

The discussions left the impression that the G20 faces an uncertain future. There were strains in relations between key G20 members during the Argentine host year, though a couple of speakers noted the relative success of the Buenos Aires Summit. Despite prior concerns about tensions between the American and Chinese governments, especially on trade, fears that a leaders’ declaration would not be agreed were unfounded.

The Japanese G20 Presidency comes at a time of growing doubts about the forum’s capacities to manage global economic uncertainties, security tensions, and global environmental threats. The coming months provide an opportunity for the Japanese hosts, and other G20 governments and stakeholders, to improve multilateral cooperation across the diverse policy agenda.

Photo: Jonathan Luckhurst

Jonathan Luckhurst is Associate Professor at Soka University in Tokyo, researching G20 and global governance, and member of T20 Task Force on 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

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