Posted on September 6, 2013
That the G-20 is a useless waste of time and money and should be abolished has been elaborated in many serious Op/Ed undefined commentaries. If the argument needed making again (it did not), what we have just observed in St. Petersburg should be determinate.
It is sublimely ironic, and telling, then that this G20 meeting provided some small and, perhaps, not so small, successes for Japan’s prime minister, Abe Shinzo. For while casual conversations and photo ops are time-wasting nuances for most world leaders, for Abe they may feel like a welcome back into polite society.
Since his election last December, Abe has been one of Japan’s most diplomatically energetic prime ministers, heading political and commercial missions to the five continents with a frequency recalling Hillary Clinton’s frenetic peregrinations. So far–as with Hillary–little of substance seems to have come from all this burning of jet fuel.
The biggest reason is that Abe’s itinerary has not included Beijing or Seoul, the capitals of Japan’s two most important bilateral relationships, which have rebuffed Japan’s requests for an official invitation. Neither China nor South Korea has perceived that Abe nationalist cabinet is prepared to abandon statements and positions that create fundamental obstacles to constructive political relations. For China, it is the absurd Japanese gaimusho conceit that there exists no dispute over sovereignty of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.
Nor should we forget the shabby treatment of Abe by President Obama, who finally deigned to meet this “key U.S. ally in the Western Pacific” for more than 45 minutes after a North Korean nuclear test in February, and only after Abe confirmed that he would be bringing “gifts” in the form of commitments to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade talks, and to defy and otherwise placate local opposition to relocating the U.S. Marine Futenma air base to another location on Okinawa.
Having got from Abe everything he wanted for two key U.S. constituencies–big business and the Pentagon–Obama has seen no reason to meet again with Abe, and delivered an almost gratuitous insult to Japan by refusing a one-on-one meeting with Abe at the last G8 summit.
The continued humiliation of Japan by the U.S. seemed assured at the St. Petersburg G20, until the meeting became a stage on which Obama could parade supporters of a U.S. military strike on Syria. An Abe-Obama meeting photo op was an essential prop in this production, and Abe was thrilled to perform his scripted role, playing both to the world audience, and to doubting believers in the U.S.-Japan alliance in Japan.
The Obama-Abe meeting was really all show, and contained nothing likely to change Abe dismal foreign performance. His accomplishments at the G20 came in three other places.
Above all, there was a five minute “standing summit” between Abe and Chinese president Xi Jinping while the two stood a conference waiting room. This tete-a-tete, the content of which, after courtesies, we are told was an expression by Abe of hope that a proper meeting could be arranged in the near feature, was surely initiated by Abe. And Abe undoubtedly did most of the talking. It was the first “dialogue” between the two since their ascension to power last year.
Speculation, and some measure of wishful thinking, is that the way has been cleared for a substantive meeting at the APEC meeting in early October. Whether this happens depends on Abe willingness to change Japan’s stance and, we may speculate further, whether Japanese and Chinese diplomats negotiating in secret are able to agree on the outlines of a “new paradigm”–like a non-militarized zone and joint exploitation of resources–to manage, if not resolve, the dispute.
Abe is under huge pressure from his U.S. “ally” to meet China more than half way on Senkaku/Diaoyu. November is probably too tight a deadline for a resolution, the some evidence of progress could appear.
Although preplanned and scripted the pre-G20 meeting between Abe and Russian president Vladimir Putin was important as a milestone in continuing forward momentum in the Japan-Russian geopolitical and economic relationship. The two confirmed that a new “2+2” foreign and defense ministry consultative structure (based on a U.S.-Japan model) will hold its first meeting in the months ahead. Also, that negotiations to resolve the Japan-Russia “Northern Territories” (Kurile Islands) territorial dispute and on a peace treaty (not signed since WWII) will recommence in earnest soon.
Ironically, while Abe has been touting his “democracy and human rights values” diplomacy, success in advancing Japan’s interests seems to be coming in countries like Vietnam, Myanmar, and Russia that would hardly meet the values litmus tests.
But for Japan and Abe greatest potential success at the G20 has had nothing to do with the G20 at all. It has been the opportunity for Japan to lobby participating governments to vote for Tokyo as the location of the 2020 Summer Olympics. Whether the lobbying was successful will judged when the votes are counted in Buenos Aires and the winner between Tokyo, Madrid, and Istanbul, is announced early Sunday morning Tokyo time.