Since the referendum on Brexit in the United Kingdom and the election of Donald Trump in the United States in 2016, Japan’s government and foreign policy have focused on plurilateralism.
Unilateralism and bilateralism have become the dominant framework for UK decision making and US presidential initiatives. One reason is the solid basis that was established in the West after the Second World War.
The international economic order represented by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the World Trade Organization (WTO) has spread throughout the world, with benefits felt even in developing countries. In established and dominant countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom, because of the solid basis of that order, some revision has become possible.
One reason for this revision relates to trade. In renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement, the United States sought to increase its own benefits. However, Mexico and Canada have protected their own basic value-producing systems. In the case of trade relations between the United States and the European Union, President Jean-Claude Juncker has shown the European Union to be resilient in maintaining its benefits. There will be some room for the United States and European Union to negotiate on the basis of mutual benefit.
Another reason for rising unilateralism and bilateralism comes from the collapse of the Cold War. During the Cold War, multilateralism was necessary for world security. In both the Atlantic and the Pacific regions, there were strong alliances. However, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the post–Cold War regimes have had many issues. Alliances in the West appear too simplistic for the United States under President Trump, who has said that mutual benefits should be obtained by mutual burden-sharing. Within the framework of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the security treaty between Japan and the United States, there should be discussions about burden-sharing. Every participant would accept this framework.
After the United States withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Japanese government has chosen plurilateral approaches to high-level integrated trade and investment regimes, such as the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership. The US government could rejoin. New entrants, such as Thailand and the Philippines, would be welcome.
Plurilateralism depends on shared value systems and a high regard for basic human rights and intellectual property rights.
The role of the G20
What is the G20’s role in shaping this revised order? G20 summits began as a result of the global financial crisis in 2008. In managing this crisis, China has become one of the most important actors because of its huge public works at home. Consequently, a ‘G2’ framework has arisen. Demand created by China has propelled the country to the highest level in world politics. In 2011, its gross domestic product surpassed that of Japan. The United States and China became the two largest countries in economic size. The G20 has thus became very important, because China’s engagement in world affairs could be discussed openly there. However, those happy days for the G20 did not last for long.
One reason is Chinese assertiveness in its military expansion. China built artificial military bases in the South China Sea. After the Philippine government sought the judgement of the Hague’s International Arbitration Court, China’s historical claim was denied. However, China did not accept the judgement of the court. It rejected international law and Beijing did not reduce its military build-up.
Another reason for resistance to Chinese policies came after attacks in cyberspace by the People’s Liberation Army. Details about an F36 stealth bomber were stolen and almost the same stealth bomber appeared in China. Moreover, with the US Congress opposing Chinese investment and
the important role played by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, Chinese investment in high technologies will be rejected because of concerns about US security.
Within the G20 framework, there are several very important actors other than the G7 members. With regard to the next peace process in Syria, Russia and Turkey are very significant. The United Nations may prepare for such a dialogue in Geneva but it cannot actually intervene. In 2017, Russia, Turkey and Iran met in Astana and influenced the peace process. That discussion mattered for the possibilities of Syrian refugees, affecting the political landscape in the European Union.
However, the G20 is not effective in such a process, as shown by its efforts regarding peace-building in Eastern Ukraine. As to trade wars, at the 2017 summit in Germany, the G20 could not improve the situation. The G7 at its summit in Canada in 2018 could not contain the United States, with President Trump tweeting his abandonment of the communiqué after he left Canada.
So today, the effectiveness and existence of the G20 and of the G7 are being questioned.
Consequently, flexible plurilateralism, on issue after issue, will become the framework for engaging world affairs.