The G20 meeting which took place in Osaka on 28th and 29th of June was another indication of the severity of the present crisis facing the capitalist class internationally. While issues of equality, women’s empowerment and environmental destruction were given lip-service in the final declaration, it was the issue of trade, always closest to the heart of the bourgeoisie, and the possibility of a trade war between the USA and China that dominated the Osaka G20.
The background to the dispute is the decline of the US as an economic power and the dramatic rise of China as a world power. The US share of world GDP stood at just under 25% last year compared to 40% in 1960. Trump, with his “America First” policy, is treading in the footsteps of the British imperialists at the end of the 19th century, when they abandoned free trade in response to the rise of German and then US capitalism.
While its relative economic strength has declined, the US is still the dominant global military power, with its military spending presently more than 2.5 times that of China, its closest rival. Whether under Trump or a Democratic successor, socialists should be under no illusion that the US ruling class is prepared to use all of their power to maintain their dominance.
The host of the Osaka G20 meeting, Japanese premier Abe, had hoped to use the summit to boost his prestige and use his much talked about “friendship” with Trump to pursue the interests of Japanese capitalism, the world’s third economic power. The Japanese ruling class is just as fearful of China’s rise as Trump and the US capitalists. In particular they fear the build-up of naval power and claims to territory presently held by Japan, such as the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and the rights to exploit mineral and fishing resources in the East China Sea.
Abe’s relations with China are complicated further because his domestic base is the nationalist right, who see it is a question of national pride to deny the atrocities, such as the Nanking Massacre, committed by Japanese imperialism against the Chinese people - a fact that Chinese leaders have found useful in stoking up homegrown nationalism. Fear of China pushes Japanese imperialism into the arms of the US.
However, this is only one side of the story. While Japan fears China’s rise, it also needs China’s economy. China was Japan’s largest trading partner in 2018. 19.5% of its exports were China-bound - slightly more than its exports to the US. Its other top markets - South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Thailand and Singapore - are all in the East Asian area and also highly dependent on the Chinese economy. A trade war between the US and China would have disastrous consequences for Japan. The massive increase in tourism from the East Asian area, primarily from mainland China, has also kept the Japanese economy chugging along and would be threatened by a trade war.
For these reasons, the right-populist Abe found himself an unlikely champion of free trade and multilateralism, extolling the virtues of a “A free and open economy” and declaring that, “Japan as a flag-bearer of free trade will continue to promote forcefully the improvement of the multilateral trading system.” He managed to find common ground with Xi in opposing protectionism. However, things didn’t go too well for him and it seems that his much vaunted friendship with Trump didn’t count for much.
Japan’s reluctance to follow Trump’s rush to war with Iran, after the attack on a Japanese tanker in the straits of Hormuz during Abe’s visit to Iran, led to angry remarks from Trump about Japan and China needing to defend their own tankers. Trump followed up this statement in a Fox News interview immediately prior to the summit, where he described the Security Treaty between the countries as “unfair.” This statement was subsequently downplayed by both US and Japanese officials, but while it is clear that Trump is not going to withdraw from the US-Japan Security Treaty in the near future, it was clearly an attempt to pressurise Japan into making concessions on trade issues and possibly also to contribute more towards US bases and military forces on Japanese soil.
While Trump held back from imposing new tariffs and taking further action against the Chinese telecom company Huawei, the final declaration was anything but a ringing defence of free-trade and multilateralism and opposition to protection. “We strive to realise a free, fair, non-discriminatory, transparent, predictable and stable trade and investment environment, and to keep our markets open,” it said. The problem is that they cannot agree on what “fair, non-discriminatory and transparent” means. Trump’s argument for introducing tariffs in the first place was that his imperialist rivals were not playing “fair.”
While all sides, even Trump, fear a trade war the logic of capitalism and imperialist rivalry is pushing them towards one, despite themselves.
It was not only with respect to trade, but also such fundamental issues as climate change and environmental destruction, that differences could barely be papered over by the empty phrases of the declaration. A whole paragraph gave Trump’s rationale for withdrawing from the Paris Agreement. Again, it was the “unfairness” of the agreement to US imperialism that was used to justify that withdrawal. This was a further indication that the leaders of the new “multi-polar” world are incapable of avoiding disaster.
Unlike at many previous international meetings, the protest movement opposing the summit was relatively subdued. At most, a few hundred participated in the counter-demonstration in Osaka Port. This was partially due to the low ebb in the movement in Japan and also to the social control that the governments of Japan and neighbouring Asian countries try to exercise over their populations.
In the days leading up to the summit, Osaka seemed like a city under occupation. There were military planes flying overhead. There was a massive police presence, with officers drafted in from all over Japan. They were equipped with huge mobile metal barriers that could be wheeled in to block roads at a moment’s notice. Expressways were closed and pretty much every waste bin and coin-operated locker in the city was removed as an anti-terrorism measure. This is only part of the explanation for the small size of protests, though.
All of the leading actors in the summit were drawn from the populist right. Amongst activists in the labour movement, amongst the youth and even amongst layers of the radicalised middle class, there were few illusions that leaders like Trump, Abe, Xi, Putin and Modi can be pressured into policies that would prevent environmental destruction, bring equality or prevent imperialist war. These leaders are seen by the active layers as part of the problem and not part of the solution. They are drawing conclusions that an altogether more serious struggle is needed if disaster is to be prevented.
The major power - the “elephant in the room” - unrepresented at the Osaka G20, was the working class. Largely due to the massive growth in industrial Asia, wage workers are now, for the first time in history, a majority of the world’s population. The movement in Hong Kong prior to the summit should have served as a reminder to any of the leaders who might have forgotten, that masses have not spoken their last word.
The movement of working people is potentially the decisive force on the planet. However, in order to unite and realise that potential, workers should have no Illusions in these leaders. They and their policies need to be vigorously opposed. As the German socialist, Karl Liebknecht, put it: “The main enemy is in your own country.” By fighting for a socialist future, and putting itself at the head of all the oppressed of the world, the labour movement will put a stop to the new barbarism that the world’s present misleaders are unable to prevent.