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Foreign Policy

There's Something Distinctly Undemocratic About Big Summits

Jul 15 , 2019

There’s something distinctly undemocratic about big summits. Millions of people are inconvenienced for the movements of a few, and untold sums are spent on optics and showmanship that could otherwise be put to practical use. The media scrum covers it like a celebrity fest, tripping over one another without providing much analysis.

The Osaka G-20 summit was a success, if the sight of preening leaders posing for photo ops and exchanging platitudes can be considered a good thing, but the central, unresolved conflict between the US and China was barely papered over and general statements to the effect that negotiations were back on track did not begin to undo the damage incurred by Trump’s rash words and actions. At best, the summit offered a ceasefire rather than a solution to the war on trade with China. 

The G-20 summit was held inside a vast exhibition center on a dreary, nearly treeless man-made island located in the industrial port area of Osaka, Japan’s third largest city. The physical isolation and limited bridge access of the big, boxy, concrete venue better known for automotive shows was a plus for the complex security and logistics of a summit where some of the most powerful and contentious people on the planet convened without serious incident. 

The Osaka summit hosted delegations from over 30 countries, but it was the triumvirate of the world’s most powerful economies, China-Japan-US, with a sidebar on Korea, that cried for the most attention.

One of the most memorable photos taken in the convention center makes a visceral show of how a summit can bring leaders with big egos “close” together in a way devoid of grandiosity, but not without endearment. Trump, his pinched, listless face staring off into space, is seated at a small folding table with an unsmiling Xi, while officious host Abe is squeezed tightly in the middle, nervously consulting his notes. It’s not the stuff of pomp and circumstance, but it rings truer than many of the more blatantly staged photos and the airy encomiums made at the summit.

Japan takes it security seriously, in ways both circumspect and petty, having dispatched something close to 30,000 police to man the event. One minor police measure got front page coverage in the Japan Times, namely the view of a taped-up train station trash receptacle that read:

“Due to special vigilance, Trash box can NOT be used.”

The signage was trilingual with a twist; it was written in English and Korean and Chinese. The only “Japanese” writing on the sign came in the form of a truncated notice rendered in large kanji, also readable in Chinese. A longer explanation, rendered in simplified ideographs specifically directed at mainland Chinese, explained that the sealed-up trash can was not presently in use, a statement so obvious it went without saying in Japanese.

The summit had a distinct Asian flavor even though G-20 attendees included the leaders of Western Europe, South Africa, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Australia, and also, more contentiously, a trio of deeply illiberal leaders from Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

Despite the hackneyed “diversity,” media attention focused mostly on the two superpowers, namely the US and China, and, by virtue of being host and an economic powerhouse in its own right, Japan.

Fresh out of Pyongyang, where he was treated to a sentimental tribute of orchestrated crowd frenzy worthy of the Mao era, Xi Jinping shared top billing with 19 other leaders in Osaka, and did not produce photo ops worthy of a paramount leader. Though rarely seen to smile, Xi did informally agree to a state visit to Japan next spring during cherry blossom season, which would accord him a full panoply of pomp and pageantry with a soft Japanese touch.

Despite parting pronouncements to the effect that trade negotiations had resumed and some boilerplate talk about possible concessions and cooperation would take place, a seriously destabilizing trade war still simmers. China was adamant about not making concessions on structural change within, characterizing the US demand as foreign interference. Trump, on the other hand, under pressure not to damage business confidence any further, hinted that Huawei might be given some slack, despite it being the victim of a highly-coordinated US propaganda campaign and a convenient bulls-eye for the US techno-nationalists.

Trump’s lack of seriousness and inability to concentrate on the task at hand led him to shoot off a disconcerting tweet on the eve of his critical meeting with Xi Jinping, issuing a bizarre open invitation to North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, suggesting they meet up at the demilitarized zone (DMZ) in Korea for a handshake and a hello. This last-minute bid to meet Kim points to an almost childish need on the part of the US president to stay in the news and have the last word on everything. 

Keen on securing a win, or an outcome that might be creatively construed as a win for an otherwise blinkered and tattered foreign policy, Trump has shown an unbecoming eagerness to meet leaders with the worst human rights records.

North Korea was not represented at the summit, but it got its share of attention between the colorful media coverage of Xi Jinping’s state visit to Pyongyang that immediately preceded the summit, and Trump's short, showy visit to the DMZ, where he shook hands with Kim Jong-un and briefly stepped inside North Korean territory.

South Korea’s urbane and well-mannered president Moon Jae-in made the short journey from Osaka to Seoul with the US president, but he habitually attracts only a fraction of the coverage bestowed upon his petulant counterpart north of the DMZ.

Beijing-Pyongyang relations took a dive when North Korea, heedless of its big neighbor’s advice, continued to test ballistic missiles while US-Pyongyang relations took a dive when the Hanoi summit ended in acrimony. Since then, Beijing and Washington hold a more-or-less shared vision of a denuclearizing North Korea, but neither wants to follow the other’s lead.

The “grand bargain” of the Trump administration is pitted against the “suspension for suspension” plan favored by Chinese diplomats which calls for a US war games halt in exchange for a weapons test halt. China, unlike the US, is willing to countenance a loosening of sanctions, including localized cross-border trade and humanitarian aid so long as North Korea takes no provocative steps forward in flexing its military muscle. 

Neither Trump nor Xi wants “Lil’ Kim” to get between them, like Abe did in the cramped Osaka photo op, but that is exactly where a wily diplomat, seeking a hedge against domination, wants to be. There is ample leverage to be found in playing one big power off the other, an asymmetric play made all the easier by the drift in US-China relations.

The G-20 summit ended with the tangled US-China imbroglio still unknotted.

Whether this year’s summit will rise to the level of historic import, it is too soon to say. In any case, Japan was able to reassert its traditional role as a regional player and it stands to benefit if it can continue to act as broker between the US and China.

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