Abe’s fragile success at the G20

Asia Uncategorized World

Author: Kazuhiko Togo, Kyoto Sangyo University

The Osaka G20 summit was an opportunity for Japan to demonstrate its leadership to the world. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe successfully navigated competing interests and tension at the summit, achieving fragile compromises between states. But this may not be enough to contain the rivalry among major global powers.

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks during the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan, June 29, 2019. (Photo: Reuters/ Kazuhiro Nogi/Pool)

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks during the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan, June 29, 2019. (Photo: Reuters/ Kazuhiro Nogi/Pool)

On trade, investment and global economic order, little room for compromise was present in the leaders’ declaration ‘to realise a free, fair, non-discriminatory, transparent, predictable and stable trade and investment environment and to keep markets open’. All participants agreed to the declaration, with China also emphasising non-discrimination and the United States emphasising fairness. On the World Trade Organization (WTO), all the participants agreed to ‘necessary reform of the WTO’ and necessary action ‘regarding the functioning of the dispute settlement system’.

A special session on the digital economy was held at the beginning of the summit to address the issue of technology. Despite controversy between US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping, Abe successfully launched the ‘Osaka Track’ framework to encourage multilateral discussion on digital economy rulemaking and cross-border data sharing.

On the environment, the ‘Osaka Blue Ocean Vision’ to reduce additional pollution in the oceans to zero by 2050 was set as a shared objective.

But Abe’s major achievement was to avoid any explosion over security and foreign policy issues. He did this through a series of careful bilateral meetings which took place outside the summit itself.

The real preparations for the Osaka G20 summit started with President Trump’s visit to Japan on 25 May as the first state guest of the new Reiwa era. It is likely that critical issues directly related to the G20, bilateral trade and security — such as those involving China, North Korea, South Korea, Russia and Iran — were discussed then. This preparation allowed Abe to focus on strengthening cooperation in Osaka and showing willingness to even engage in dialogue with Iran.

Against the background of increasing hegemonic rivalry between the United States and China, bilateral Abe–Xi talks in Osaka were marked by a mutual willingness to improve their relationship. This included a new definition of the relationship as ‘eternal neighbours’ and Xi’s agreement to accept a state visit invitation to Japan in the spring of 2020. The sensitive situation in Hong Kong was apparently not taken up in G20 discussions.

With regards to Russia, despite strong anti-Putinism in the United States and in major European countries, Abe did not waver in holding his 26th meeting with Putin. Abe even took care to issue a written press statement where ‘the leaders welcomed that peace treaty negotiations are proceeding energetically based on the 1956 joint declaration’. While prospects for the negotiations are vague, it would be premature to conclude that opportunities for progress are closed under Abe and Putin.

With regards to Iran, Abe’s official visit on 12 June suggests he is working to encourage a more peaceful Iran–US relationship. Despite this, his meetings with the Supreme Leader Khamenei and President Rouhani did not foster any movement towards a rapprochement.

The G20 provided an opportunity for Trump and Xi to agree to postpone their avalanching trade and digital wars and continue their negotiations in search for a solution. Abe, together with the overwhelming majority of world political and economic leaders, welcomed this development.

What was even more surprising was Trump’s sudden meeting on 30 June at Panmunjom with Kim Jong-un. For Abe, whose policy is to seek ‘dialogue with Kim without preconditions’, the resumption of dialogue is welcomed.

Almost all of what happened in Osaka seems to be at least ‘temporal success’ for Abe’s foreign and security policy.

South Korea was the exception. The ‘enforced labour’ issue has paralysed the bilateral relationship — at the G20 Abe did not have even casual talks with President Moon Jae-in. On 1 July the Japanese government announced that three chemicals vital to South Korea’s manufacturing of high-tech products would be put under tighter export control with some possible extension measures to be taken in August. The Korean media was filled with anger directed towards Japan.

Hopefully this will not mark the beginning of the end of Abe’s balanced and well-coordinated foreign and security policy.

Kazuhiko Togo is Professor and Director of the Institute for World Affairs at Kyoto Sangyo University.

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