A balloonist’s-eye view of summit declarations
19 Sep 2023|

Summit season is in full swing, with the East Asia, BRICS and G20 leaders’ gatherings over the last month and APEC summit yet to come in November in San Francisco.

It takes a balloonist’s tolerance for hot air to go through the communiqués, but the G20 Centre at the University of Toronto has done so, counting 242 new commitments in the G20 New Delhi leaders’ declaration, up from 223 at last year’s Bali summit and fourth highest since the leaders’ meetings of G20 members began in the wake of the global financial crisis in 2008.

They include vows to ‘accelerate strong, sustainable, balanced and inclusive growth’, ‘improve access to digital services and digital public infrastructure’ and ‘close gender gaps and promote the full, equal, effective and meaningful participation of women in the economy as decision-makers’.

Commitments are homogenised by the need for consensus; however, the communiqués still carry some geopolitical content. It was noted that the G20 communiqué omitted the reference to ‘Russian aggression’ that had been present in the Bali communiqué, but it had a much fuller commentary on the Ukraine war, calling for a cessation of military attacks on Ukraine’s food and energy infrastructure with deep concern for the impact of the conflict on civilians.

In a pointed reference to Russia, the communiqué said: ‘We call on all states to uphold the principles of international law including territorial integrity and sovereignty, international humanitarian law, and the multilateral system that safeguards peace and stability.’

The declaration noted that the G20 was the premier forum for international economic cooperation and was not a platform for resolving geopolitical or security issues, but it justified its deliberations on Ukraine saying they had significant consequences for the global economy.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin missed both the G20 and the East Asia Summits, while putting in a video appearance at the BRICS summit (South Africa would have been bound by its membership of the International Criminal Court to execute arrest warrants on charges of war crimes, had he attended in person).

Putin sent Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to attend the G20 and East Asia Summits. Lavrov had to sit through the G20 debate on Ukraine and accede to India’s compromise of dropping the reference to Russian aggression in exchange for a sharper commentary.

US President Joe Biden, who did attend, may also have had an uncomfortable discussion about his country’s continued disruption of the World Trade Organization, where it has forced the appeals tribunal to shut down by refusing to endorse any new appointments of judges.

Biden had to agree to the G20 communiqué’s endorsement of the WTO as the ‘core’ of the multilateral trading system and commit to negotiations to restore the full functioning of the WTO appeals panel by 2024.

The East Asia Summit leaders’ statement included some commentary on maritime security that would have been uncomfortable for China. Although China’s President Xi Jinping did not attend the summit, his premier, Li Qiang, had to sign off on a communiqué that underlined the primacy of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and promoted ‘freedom of navigation and overflight, other internationally lawful uses of the seas and unimpeded lawful maritime commerce, the exercise of self-restraint, the non-use of force or the threat to use force against another state consistent with the UN Charter’.

China’s claim of territorial rights over the South China Sea is a source of dispute with several ASEAN members. It has refused to recognise the UNCLOS tribunal finding in favour of the Philippines over the extent of its territorial waters.

Xi’s failure to attend either the G20 or the East Asia Summit drew commentary questioning China’s commitment to multilateralism, with the Asia Society Policy Institute’s Neil Thomas telling the Financial Times, ‘This is the first of potentially many international summits that Xi decides to skip because of diplomatic conflicts or domestic troubles.’

However, as the greatest beneficiary of globalisation since its accession to the WTO in 2001, China is likely to remain engaged with these global forums. Xi is expected to attend the APEC summit and discussions are understood to be underway about a bilateral meeting with Biden.

The no-shows from Biden, Xi and Putin at the East Asia Summit may raise questions about its importance; however, the prime ministers of Japan, India and Australia each attended. Biden was represented by Vice President Kamala Harris.

As prime minister, Kevin Rudd had aspirations for the East Asia Summit to become the pivot of a pan-Asian economic and security community and pressed to expand its membership to bring in the ASEAN nations (as well as Japan, Australia and New Zealand) together with the US, China and Russia. The first summit of these leaders was in 2011. He contended that the APEC summit did not have the latitude to deal with security issues.

It is now 34 years since APEC was formed as a gathering of finance and trade ministers, and up to 30 years as a leaders’ summit. The G20 has 24 years as a finance ministers’ meeting and 15 years as a leaders’ summit.

The G7 started as a finance ministers’ gathering 50 years ago and has held leaders’ summits since 1975. Russia was invited as a member in 1997 and expelled following its annexation of Crimea in 2014.

While there are debates about who does and does not attend, and questions raised about whether they make any tangible difference to global policy, the summits are becoming institutionalised.

The least that can be said for them is that they bring leaders together in a structured forum where views are exchanged and, behind closed doors, disagreements can be aired. They are not a form of international governance: decisions are not binding as were, for example, the determinations of the WTO appeals panel and the UNCLOS tribunal.

The most comprehensive analysis of G20 policy follow-through has been conducted by the Global Trade Alert, associated with the Swiss University of St Gallen. It compiles a database of trade measures, assessing the extent to which G20 members have strayed from their 2009 commitment to eschew protectionism.

‘Any notion that the G20 acts as an effective force to align its members’ trade and industrial policies can be discarded,’ its latest report declares, noting that over the past year, protectionist measures have outnumbered liberalising measures by a margin of three to one.

Since the financial crisis, the most ambitious attempt to use the G20 to stimulate the global economy came with Australia’s chairmanship in 2014 when members committed to structural reforms to boost economic growth. Again, the promises were not kept and monitoring of their performance was ultimately abandoned.

However, a 2018 study by Adam Triggs, now the director of research at the Asian Bureau of Economic Research, found that leaders, ministers, central bank governors and senior officials still believed the G20 deliberations to be of great value, both for strengthening personal relations between leaders and for the exchange of policy ideas. Many cited initiatives they had implemented domestically that had been first discussed at the G20.

The G20, under India’s leadership, took a step to strengthen its legitimacy, inviting the African Union to become a member on equal footing with the European Union. It was the first expansion in the G20’s membership since its formation.

While the original G20 membership was largely decided by US and German officials, the BRICS grouping emerged from a Goldman Sachs research report. It has also sought to strengthen its legitimacy as a voice for the emerging world by expanding its membership to include Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The admissions had a strongly Middle Eastern bias and, surprisingly, did not include either Nigeria or Indonesia, which are both among the largest emerging nations. Both have been reported to be concerned that the BRICS group is too driven by an anti-West agenda. In Indonesia’s case, its priority is its push to join the OECD.