Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe emphasized the importance of free trade and high-quality infrastructure development as he attended the G-20 summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina last week. It’s a familiar refrain, but one we’re likely to hear even more often as Japan takes over G-20 hosting duties in 2019.
Abe said at the outset that he intended to be a strong advocate in Buenos Aires for “strengthening the free and fair trade system, and ensuring the sustainable growth of the global economy.” Having already advanced these arguments at a series of regional and bilateral summits over the past two months, Abe highlighted the importance of the G-20, given that its members accounted for over 80 percent of global GDP and the forum enabled vital discussions on free trade and the global economy.
The G-20 leaders’ statement, which coincided with an apparent truce in the trade dispute between the United States and China, recognized “the contribution that the multilateral trading system has made” in driving growth, productivity, innovation, job creation, and development. Taking into account various concerns that have been raised, chiefly by the United States, the statement added that the system was “currently falling short of its objectives and there is room for improvement.” The leaders’ statement expressed support for unspecified reform of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and suggested there be a progress review at the next summit in Osaka, Japan. The final statement did not repeat last year’s pledge to fight protectionism.
On the sidelines of the G-20, Abe had a busy schedule of bilateral engagements spanning many ongoing issues. These included a meeting on December 1 with British Prime Minister Theresa May in which Abe welcomed the United Kingdom’s potential interest in joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership in the future. Meanwhile, Abe called for all efforts to be made to avoid the UK crashing out of the European Union without a deal in March next year. His plea for stability and certainty reflects the concerns of Japanese global companies, which have warned of the impact a disorderly Brexit could have on investment.
Abe also met the same day with European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, to whom he conveyed a similar message about the need for the United Kingdom’s withdrawal to proceed smoothly so as to minimize negative economic impacts. The economic partnership agreement between Japan and the EU – signed in Tokyo in July and set to cover about a third of global GDP – was another key topic at the meeting. The leaders agreed it was important for both sides to complete their domestic procedures related to the trade pact by the end of this year, according to a Japanese government summary. They also shared the view that the G-20 “should deliver a consistent message regarding WTO reform toward growth of world economy.”
Abe also caught up with U.S. President Donald Trump on November 30 to discuss trade and coordinate policy on North Korea. Abe and Trump were even joined by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on November 30 for their first ever trilateral summit meeting. Abe emphasized that the three countries shared “fundamental values and strategic interests” and he hoped they would work together toward realizing a free and open Indo-Pacific. Later in the day, Abe held another bilateral meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, following up on their summit in Beijing in October. Abe reportedly urged Xi to take concrete measures on contentious trade-related issues such as intellectual property protection.
Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, discussed ways to make progress on a World War II peace treaty. As previously reported, Putin seemed to catch Abe off-guard when the Russian leader used an appearance at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok in September to float the idea of signing a peace treaty with Japan “without preconditions” by the end of 2018. However, when they met on the sidelines of regional summits in Singapore in mid-November, Abe and Putin agreed to accelerate peace treaty negotiations based on the 1956 Joint Declaration, which provides for two of the four disputed islands to be returned to Japan. Abe went into the latest meeting in Buenos Aires aiming to build momentum for further progress. Abe and Putin indicated that their foreign ministers would oversee negotiations.
Japan now takes the reins of the G-20, with a series of ministerial-level meetings to be held around the country and the leaders’ summit to occur in Osaka in late June 2019. Abe has previously signaled that he would use the opportunity to push for action on climate change, but he provided an insight into his other priorities during the closing ceremony of the Buenos Aires summit.
The Osaka summit, he said, would aim to “materialize a free, open, and inclusive and sustainable future society and promote efforts to this end.” This would include a focus on the Sustainable Development Goals and free trade and innovation while growing the economy in an inclusive manner.
Abe said Japan was a forerunner in dealing with challenges such as an aging population and could therefore show other countries potential policy solutions. While the discussion would canvass innovative technology, such as artificial intelligence and robotics, there would also be a focus on achieving the active participation of all people, including women, the young, the elderly, and people with disabilities.
“In addition, we will carry on the issue of infrastructure for development, which Argentina has raised as a priority issue, and strengthen connectivity through high-quality infrastructure, an initiative that Japan has been promoting,” Abe said. He added that global public goods such as healthcare were indispensable to economic growth.
On the topic of energy and climate, Abe said it was important to spur private investments and “create a virtuous cycle for the environment and growth” rather than see it as a binary choice. “From those perspectives, I would like to hold constructive discussions on the contributions of the G-20 on global issues, such as climate change and plastic waste in the oceans,” Abe said. “I hope to lead the G-20 Osaka summit to success, obtaining support from all the G-20 leaders.”