Historic G20 Summit in Hangzhou is seen as the diplomatic equivalent of the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and the Shanghai Expo in 2010
World leaders who are set to descend on the Hangzhou International Exhibition Center will be taking part in what is being seen as a historic event for China.
The world’s second-largest economy is hosting the G20 Summit for the first time on Sept 4 and 5 and has the opportunity to shape the agenda in what is a difficult time for the global economy amid renewed fears about sluggish growth.
China is not the first Asian country to hold the summit – South Korea did so in 2010 – nor is it the first emerging economy, with Turkey having hosted it last year, Mexico in 2012 and Russia in 2013.
The 11th summit, however, comes at a time when there is an increasing debate about the shape of the global governance architecture and whether the Washington institutions, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, largely a product of a post-World War II settlement, are fit for purpose in a world where emerging economies increasingly dominate.
Unlike the G8, which excludes China and is made up of developed countries -apart from the currently suspended Russia – the G20 better reflects the changing world with its members including South Africa, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, India, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Turkey.
Some in China believe the hosting of the summit has a status equivalent to Beijing staging the Olympics in 2008 or the Shanghai Expo of 2010 – although the Hangzhou meeting will not attract the same international audience and most of the action will take place behind closed doors,
William Kirby, T. M. Chang professor of China Studies at Harvard University, says China’s hosting the G20 is clearly historic.
“It is, of course, a sign of China’s global importance, economically and otherwise. It is at the same time a very large and in many ways a still-emerging economy,” he says.
The leading US-China expert and author of Can China Lead? says it is also particularly fitting it is being held in Hangzhou, which according to Forbes magazine is the No 1 business city in the country.
“Hangzhou and Zhejiang (the province of which the city is the capital) have been centers of economic growth since the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279),” he says.
“Today it is home to many of the most dynamic private businesses in China, including Wanxiang (the Chinese autoparts maker) and (e-commerce giant) Alibaba. If you want to understand about a wealthy city, just read Marco Polo.”
Zhu Ning, deputy dean of the Shanghai Advanced Institute of Finance, believes it also marks China’s coming of age and enables it to lead from the front.
“It can’t set the general agenda. That is, of course, collectively set. What the host can do, however, is highlight and influence particular aspects or the interpretation of the agenda.”
The economist believes China might be particularly influential in what might prove to be one of the big themes of the summit, the need for a concerted and coordinated fiscal stimulus in order to counteract sluggish global growth.
“China is heavily promoting the idea of using infrastructure investment to propel economic growth and other countries are starting to think this way as well,” he says.
“The problem is that other countries lack the political streamlining to push this forward and they also lack the fiscal resources. It is not always easy for developed economies such as in many European countries to find the projects in which to invest.”
Martin Jacques, author of the highly influential When China Rules the World, says that even if the G20 summit is not a pivotal event in itself, it could be seen as a staging post in a process that will see a major overhaul in the way the world is governed.
“There is a crisis of global governance. This is because developing economies, which accounted for a third of global GDP in the mid-1970s, will make up two-thirds by 2030 and the existing institutions have not shifted in response,” he says.
“If China could come up with some strategic initiatives that were accepted by a range of other countries then this summit could turn into a significant moment. Otherwise it will certainly be a significant moment in a process that is unquestionably pivotal.”
Jacques, who is set to take up a post as visiting professor at the Institute of Modern International Relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing, says a number of the G20 members already see China as a leader as the largest and arguably most successful emerging economy.
“Many countries, particularly in the developing world, are now looking for China to take a lead. If you look at what is driving growth in Central Asia, it is China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Similarly, in Africa, it is China investment in infrastructure.
“With new institutions like the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, China now sees itself as a mover and shaker of globalization and if you went back only three or four years, you would say that no way that would this be the case.”
Kerry Brown, professor of Chinese Studies and director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College, London, argues that hosting the G20 is just a reaffirmation of China’s new status in the world.
He points out it already held the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) forum, in November 2014.
“I think economically China has long come of age. In that sense, the convening of the G20 is just further confirmation of China’s centrality to global issues, to global discussions over matters about governance, and on how to rebalance the world economy.
“The summit, along with APEC two years ago, and a host of other meetings, only reaffirms a trend – that China is now a major player. Only the most purblind would deny that now.”
Jonathan Fenby, the China commentator and author of the Penguin History of Modern China, agrees that no one should now be surprised that China is host to a major summit of this kind.
“Given the size of its GDP, it is entirely logical that a G20 Summit should be held in China. It would be surprising if it did not happen. So I see this as a recognition of reality that has been around for some time, rather than a ‘historic’ event,” he says.
Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations and director of the Center on American Studies at Renmin University of China, does not believe that just by hosting the summit, China can assume a lead role.
“It is not, after all, the first Asian country to hold the summit, since South Korea had done it before. Neither does it mean that China has become the economic leader of the world,” he says.
“It is probably not in the same position, either, to act as a role model to other emerging economies. Its slowing economy has meant a reduction in demand of resources from a number of African countries and also Brazil and Argentina, which has probably led to a decline in influence.”
David Shinn, adjunct professor of international affairs at The George Washington University, is a former US ambassador to Ethiopia and Burkina Faso.
Also author of China and Africa: A Century of Engagement with Joshua Eisenman, he believes African countries will be following closely what happens at the summit.
“African nations will be interested in the outcome in terms of its overall impact on them, not just the role of China at the summit. In theory, the outcome will reflect the views of all participants and Africa will look especially at the impact on commodity prices and exports, trade policies, and foreign direct investment in Africa,” he says.
The former US diplomat says one lasting legacy of the summit could be if it manages to promote a free trade agenda.
There have been some 4,000 free trade restrictions imposed by G20 countries alone since 2009. Donald Trump, the Republican nominee in the US presidential election, has called for tariffs as high as 45 percent on Chinese goods.
“Trade protectionism has been a growing trend in a number of Western countries. We certainly see it in the American presidential campaign based on the argument globalization results in the loss of American jobs,” adds Shinn.
“Most Americans understand that protectionism and resulting trade wars do more harm than good.”
George Magnus, senior independent adviser at UBS in London and a leading China commentator, says that while China might be adding to its history by hosting the summit, the final outcome of Hangzhou is unlikely to be historic.
“G20 summits have so far had a poor track record in making a real mark. The one that did make a difference was London in 2009 (which coordinated the international response to the global financial crisis). Even it, however, was the icing on the cake since its outcome was largely the result of a series of individual measures agreed earlier.”
Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Chancellor’s professor of history at the University of California, Irvine and editor of the recently published Oxford Illustrated History of Modern China, says whatever the outcome, the summit is likely to cement China’s reputation as the place to hold major international events.
“One of the big China stories of recent years has been the country playing the role of host for major global spectacles, such as the Olympics, and major global meetings, from academic conferences to summits,” he says.
He believes it will also be a major boost for Hangzhou, already regarded as one of the country’s most beautiful cities.
“These events help raise the profile of specific cities, as tourist destinations and potential sites of investment. The summit has the potential to do this for Hangzhou, a city that was much more famous than neighboring Shanghai up until the mid-1800s but which has been in its shadow ever since.”