The G20 leaders rolled out a raft of visions and promises in a communique as they wrapped up the two-day summit in Hangzhou on Monday, but how G20 can shake off its reputation as a talking shop remains a major challenge.
The G20 summit ended with few surprises in its main communique after a meeting dotted with bilateral tensions and even ground-level spats despite months of meticulous planning.
The communique issued on Monday night promises structural reforms, better international financial governance, policy cooperation, finding new areas of growth such as innovations and green finance and, most important of all, a pledge that members would act decisively.
“Once we agree, we will deliver,” it said.
In his opening speech, President Xi Jinping has also called on the G20 leaders to “avoid empty talk”.
However, analysts said world leaders’ hands are tied by domestic problems.
“After all, with the US and Europe so distracted and Russia hijacked by mean-minded nationalism, China is about the only power that has the diplomatic scope and capital to bring different kinds of international coalitions together,” Kerry Brown, a Chinese studies specialist at King’s College in London, said.
Compared with the increasingly anachronistic Group of Seven (G7), the G20 is more inclusive and representative of the world economy. But the fact that the 20 rich and emerging economies are loosely organised and have vastly different political systems and levels of development makes it far more difficult to reach consensus.
“The G20 shares the fundamental fault of the United Nations General Assembly,” said Gordon Chang, a professor of history at Stanford University. “The composition of each is too diverse to make meaningful action possible.”
The joint statements and resolutions unveiled at the end of G20 meetings are usually aspirational, and not at all binding. There is also no tracking system.
For example, on curbing protectionism, Monday’s communique said the countries should communicate the benefits of trade and open markets to the public effectively and “accompanied by appropriate domestic policies to ensure that benefits are widely distributed”.
On green finance, countries can adopt the principles on a voluntary basis, while the Enhanced Structural Reform Agenda to integrate strategies for growth and structural economic reform endorsed in the communique is not binding.
Previous unmet goals set by the G20 have on occasions been shovelled aside.
At the G20 summit in Brisbane in 2014, leaders agreed to boost global economic growth by an additional 2 percentage points by 2018, but an Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development report released this year cast doubt on their ability to reach that target.
Finance minister Lou Jiwei told a G20 press conference in July that “it was a bit awkward” for G20 ministers to review the process because the target itself was unclear.
“It’s talking about ‘extra’, but what’s the basis? What’s the baseline? So, if the benchmark is changing, the meaning of ‘extra’ will change,” he said.
The Toronto summit in June 2010 urged advanced economies to implement austerity measures, with the proposals later blamed for retarding growth.
Brown said that over the years, G20 meetings had too often been about image, not substance.
Jean-Pierre Cabestan, director of government and international studies at Hong Kong Baptist University, also cautioned against expecting too much because “such world meetings are, first of all, photo opportunities”.
He said the main value of the G20 summit was to “allow world leaders to meet more frequently and sort out current or burning issues in bilateral tête-à-têtes, rather than addressing in a holistic manner the vast problems of the planet”.
Steve Tsang, a senior fellow at the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham, said the real question was how to define success.
“I do not think the G20 in Hangzhou can reshape the landscape of international politics,” he said, referring to speculation that China hoped to challenge the dominance of the Group of Seven industrialised nations in world affairs.
“I also do not see the G20 being the kind of meeting that can resolve the really difficult issues we are facing, such as the war and refugee problems in Syria, the terrorist threats from ISIS, global economic challenges that may come out of Brexit (Britain’s vote to quit the European Union) and South China Sea maritime disputes,” Tsang said.
While China repeatedly said it wanted to make this G20 summit different, it remains to be seen if China will be able to deliver on its promises, given its slowing economy and growing nationalism, which has antagonised neighbouring countries, fuelling regional tensions.
“Brexit, (US Republican presidential candidate Donald) Trump, and all the other uncertainties will make China even more edgy,” Brown said. “It wants the developed world to be nice and stable and predictable, not falling apart, as it risks doing at the moment. In that sense, China remains an oddly parasitical and dependent power, underneath all the loud, bold noise of its diplomacy at the moment.”