In the last weekend of October G20 leaders met in Rome for the first in-person summit since the pandemic began. Only a handful of leaders, including Japan’s Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, opted to attend via video conference instead. While the absence of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian leader Vladimir Putin was somewhat predictable, especially considering the focus of this G20 which revolved around multilateralism, climate change and international cooperation – Japan on the other hand was expected to play an important role in this summit. But circumstance played a role as well, given Kishida’s domestic commitments with Japan’s national election on October 31, and reluctance to openly antagonize China in an effort to maintain a carefully achieved diplomatic balance. As a result, Japan’s participation was less that of the proactive trendsetter it has become known for being and more that of a secondary player – understandable given the circumstances but hopefully not the sign of a future trend.
On the first day of the summit, the host, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, stressed the importance of meeting in person after a long and dragged out pandemic crisis. In fact the last G20 summit held in person was in Japan in 2019. Since then, the COVID-19 pandemic has not only disrupted the movement of goods, people and had profound implications on international politics, trade, and diplomacy, but the actors faced with tackling this crisis have changed as well.
The G20 Summit in Rome was an opportunity to start rebuilding the much needed “multilateralism” that according to Draghi is vital to recover from the effects of the pandemic. In fact, Prime Minister Kishida openly supported the collective and historic initiative endorsed by G20 leaders of establishing a global minimum tax on multinational companies, a plan aiming at making it harder for international companies to avoid paying tax. Prime Minister Kishida spoke about international investments and subtly hinted at the issue of China’s “debt trap” diplomacy, calling for improved fairness and transparency as well as the need to invest in quality infrastructure, an opinion shared among summit leaders.
The WHO stressed to G20 leaders of the importance of tackling inequalities and this was reiterated by Draghi within the context of international cooperation and the health crisis. Kishida also agreed to a fairer distribution of wealth and resources, but framed it in terms of a “new type of capitalism” to overcome the widening gap between rural and urban areas in Japan. Kishida’s full support for this G20 objective could be seen as a political sweetener ahead of the general election in Japan that was held a few hours after his declaration. As a New York Times report highlighted, rural areas of Japan are given more representation than urban areas making rural votes count more, leading politicians to look closely at voters in rural areas.
Climate change was also a major focus of the summit. Japan participated in a group consisting of China, Russia, India, and Australia, which called for a softer commitment to decarbonization. Tokyo, along with others, insisted that the latest G20 communiqué would only use wording to suggest a ‘strong will’ to decarbonize, rather than a “clear commitment”. On the other hand, new trade plans between EU countries and the U.S facilitated the reduction of trade tariffs following the compromised trade relations that were the consequence of the Trump era. This shows the extent to which international affairs have changed since the last in-person G20. During the previous G20 summit held in Japan, for example, Japan’s former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo was playing golf with then U.S President Trump. Abe’s successor Suga has been already replaced by Prime Minister Kishida, while Trump’s legacy is being dismantled by the new President Biden, who, among other things, apologized at the COP26 summit that started following the G20 in Rome for the last administration’s decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement. Even Draghi himself, a skilled and experienced Prime Minister who enjoys respect globally and a horizontal domestic support, marked a big departure from the unstable government that led Rome in the months preceding the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kishida has therefore been able to juggle the transition of political power in his country together with the Rome G20 summit, but Japan did not play the central role many expected. Nonetheless, Tokyo has managed to support, to different extents, many of the initiatives endorsed by other G20 leaders, and attempted not to further complicate its relationship with China and other neighbouring countries, at a time of diplomatic instability.