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Foreign Policy

A Season of Summits in a Divided World

Oct 20, 2023

The last few weeks have seen an astounding series of summits. These engagements give participants flexible frameworks for launching projects, strengthening their leverage vis-à-vis third parties, and foundations for more institutionalized cooperation in the future. Yet, some of these institutions have proved to be much more successful than others. 

For instance, the ineffectiveness of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) in dealing with international challenges in an era of great power conflict has been especially noticeable in recent months. The members have repeatedly deadlocked over the crises in Ukraine, Syria, Kosovo, Myanmar, Iran, North Korea, the South Caucasus, and most recently, Israel. Testifying to the Council’s declining importance, U.S. President Joe Biden was the only leader of the five permanent members of the UNSC who attended last month’s annual opening of the UN General Assembly in New York. 

Similarly, the future impact of The Group of 20 (G20) seems questionable given that some important world leaders skipped its most recent summit in India. The most notable absence was Chinese leader Xi Jinping, marking the first time that Xi had not personally attended a G20 summit since 2012. Despite the constrained attendance, the governments adopted a less ambitious communique than the previous year, with a notable softening in the wording on Ukraine. Some of the attending governments launched an ambitious India – Middle East – Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC), but this agreement came on the sidelines of the main summit and will require sustained commitments in future years that may not be forthcoming. It will not become clear until next year if Xi’s decision reflects differences with the host India, higher priorities at home, or a decision to deemphasize the G20 in favor of alternative institutions, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Belt and Road Forum, or the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) bloc.  

From August 22–24, the BRICS held arguably their most significant summit in their history in Johannesburg, South Africa. The attending governments emphasized the principles of inclusive multilateralism, sustainable development, state sovereignty, and respect for the United Nations. The summit’s decision to add six new members—Argentina, Egypt, Iran, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates will join the BRICS+ at the beginning of next year—reflects how the leaders of the current five governments perceive the group as a valuable mechanism for engaging with the Global South. Following enlargement, the BRICS will comprise almost half the world’s population, a substantial share of global GDP, and major shares of the world’s stockpiles of key national resources, including six of the top ten oil producers. Yet, adding members means bringing more internal tensions into the bloc, on top of the already deep China-India split. The BRICS’ future impact will also depend heavily on Russia’s behavior and China’s future economic growth. 

Meanwhile, this summer witnessed exceptional progress in institutionalizing South Korean-Japanese-U.S. ties. At their Camp David summit in August, President Biden, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida established a strategic framework and principles for trilateral security cooperation on major economic and security issues. The three countries’ share of global GDP is slightly smaller than that of the BRICS, but they are leaders in advanced cutting-edge technologies. The three nations are also more ideologically harmonious than the participants in the aforementioned groups; they share foundational liberal democratic values such as democracy, the rule of law, and human rights. The drivers of their elevated cooperation include Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China’s growing power and economic coercion, and the intent to dispel doubts about the credibility of U.S. foreign-policy commitments. However, the Camp David partnership is arguably more vulnerable to political changes in the three participating countries. Many prominent opposition leaders hold different views on the importance of their trilateral alliances.                                                              

Still, for China and the United States, the most meaningful meeting, at least in terms of short-term impact, was that between Presidents Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un. The latter conducted a week-long trip to eastern Russia that included a lengthy state dinner, visits to various Russian military-industrial sites, and little talk of nuclear disarmament or nonproliferation. Moscow and Pyongyang have little to lose and something to gain from deeper ties. Since the DPRK economy is small, even a modest boost in trade with Russia could bring North Korea substantial gains as a percentage of the country’s GDP. The arms industry would especially benefit from sales to Russia. Though the DPRK cannot supply Russia with new weapons like Iran, which has provided drones, North Korea’s shells and bullets are largely compatible with those Russia employs in Ukraine due to the common Soviet origins of both militaries. Moreover, through their interactions, both governments can highlight how neither is as isolated as Washington wants. 

Perhaps most importantly for Beijing and Washington, Moscow might embolden and empower Pyongyang’s provocations by assisting the DPRK’s development of its strategic capabilities. Even if Russia declined to advance North Korea’s nuclear weapons program directly, aiding the DPRK’s development of space launch vehicles and satellites, hypersonic delivery systems, submarine propulsion or design, or missile and counter-missile technologies could dramatically escalate war risks on the Korean Peninsula. Russia could also provide uranium to help fuel the DPRK’s civilian nuclear program or improve the DPRK’s traditionally weak conventional military capabilities, giving Pyongyang more options to threaten other countries or sell arms to international clients. The United States cannot influence Russian-DPRK ties directly, but China has leverage over Moscow and Pyongyang. Beijing should discourage Russia from transferring especially dangerous technologies to North Korea. 

These bilateral and multilateral partnerships will likely be high on the agenda of the expected meeting between Presidents Xi and Biden at next month’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in San Francisco.

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