Parsing the G20 summit: runners and riders

By Jeremy Garlick Source:Global Times Published: 2017/7/4 21:03:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

On July 7-8, the 12th meeting of the so-called Group of Twenty (G20) will be taking place in Hamburg, Germany. It comes at a time of some flux in world affairs, and therefore will be watched with attention by the global public.

As ever, there will be a wide range of economic issues to discuss, and a very narrow window of time in which to discuss them. One wonders, with such a relatively large number of participants, how much substantive progress is likely to be made.

Nevertheless, with the world's largest economic players sitting around the table, something of interest is sure to come out of discussions, even if only on the level of some controversy or other. It is up to US officials to ensure that the event's main talking point does not come courtesy of Donald Trump's Twitter account or through some other incident involving the American president, as has now begun to seem routine.

The G20 meetings began in 1999, and have now arguably achieved a relatively higher status than the G7 (formerly the G8). Indeed, officials declared in 2009 that the G20 had replaced the then-G8 as the world's premier international economic council of wealthy nations.

In contrast to the G20, the G7 fails to include emerging economies, and since 2014 has even excluded Russia. Of course, unlike the G20, the G7/G8 has never included China. With China's rapid rise to global prominence as one of the world's two largest economies, this means that the structure of the G7 is starting to look a little antiquated, not to mention having something of the flavor of a private club for the developed nations.

However, the G20 is not without its own problems. Foremost among these is its membership, which is ostensibly based on countries' economic size and significance. Since the membership has remained unchanged since the inception of the meetings, it is obvious that there are cases of countries which remain outside the G20 economically overtaking ones which are inside it.

Indeed, it is necessary to clarify what is meant by the Group of Twenty. For instance, the EU is included even though it is not a nation-state. This means that the G20 actually includes 19 countries.

On the other hand, an interesting but little-known fact is that Spain, which the IMF lists as the world's 14th largest economy by nominal GDP size, is not included among the 19 countries, but is ever-present as a "permanent guest." In other words, it is de facto the 20th nation in the G20, while not officially a member.

So who else is in? For a start, the G7 members - the US, Germany, Japan, the UK, France, Canada and Italy. They met in Italy in May, and thus their leaders must already have familiarized themselves with each other's current agendas.

However, now entering the frame are other major global players excluded by the G7's framework. Foremost among these are the world's largest emerging economies: China and India. Between them, these two undisputed powerhouses contain more than a third of the world's people and a huge proportion of growth in the global economy.

Then there are what representatives of what might be termed the second tier of advanced nations: Australia and South Korea. In fact, both have a GDP of similar size to G7 members Canada and Italy, so these four can be grouped together.

The remainder of the G20 consists of the EU plus eight emerging economies: Russia, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Argentina, Turkey and South Africa. The first seven of these earn their places by virtue of the size of their economies, but South Africa is not such a clear-cut case.

In fact, South Africa is something of a basket case among the G20. Its GDP is only 39th in the world according to the IMF. It is not even the largest African economy, that honor going to Nigeria (27th), with Egypt also exceeding South Africa's current performance (32nd).

Nevertheless, it is reasonable that the continent of Africa should be somehow represented at discussions and gain a voice at the high table, so South Africa's presence is to be welcomed on this level.

It is also customary for the G20 to invite guests, and there will be two further African countries present at this round of talks: Guinea and Senegal. The other invitees are the Netherlands, Norway, Singapore and Vietnam.

All in all, the summit provides an interesting mix of developed and developing nations. It also includes a mix of leadership personalities.

Above all, there is no getting away from the fact that, when the 20 (or, including guests, 27) leaders sit down around one table, Donald Trump is going to be the elephant in the room. There is simply no telling what he is going to do or say next, and this is likely to add a certain frisson of unpredictability to proceedings.

There is also the question of Trump not exactly being a fan (at least according to his own words) of globalized trade flows. His electoral mantra of "America First" is not exactly conducive to productive discussions in a world of complex economic interdependence.

Since the US is still the world's largest single economy, constructive American input in discussions about the direction of the global economy remains vital. Let's just hope that the outcome of the G20 talks ends up being more productive than just another tweet or naysaying rant by the erstwhile "leader of the free world."

The author is a lecturer in international relations with the Jan Masaryk Centre for International Studies at the University of Economics in Prague.

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