Successes and shortfalls from this year’s G20 summit

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JOHN YANG: President Obama is on his final trip to Asia as president. His first stop was in China to meet with leaders of the world’s 20 largest economies.

William Brangham has a summary.

PRESIDENT XI JINPING, China (through translator): Ladies and gentlemen, the 11th G20 summit has just concluded with great success.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The gathering’s host, Chinese President Xi Jinping, closed the proceedings praising the leaders for commitments to free trade and economic growth. But on the major issue of China’s glut of steel production, Xi made only limited concessions.

He agreed to greater cooperation on the problem, but not to any binding limits on steel exports. The U.S. and Europe say cheap Chinese steel has cost jobs worldwide.

President Obama said today it will take time to get concrete gains on the issue.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It was one of a number of examples that aren’t always sexy and don’t attract a lot of headlines of where issues that we have raised in the G20 get adopted and then a bunch of work gets done, and the following year, you start seeing action, and slowly we strengthen and build up international norms.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The conflict in Syria was also addressed this weekend, but, again, with little to show for it. President Obama met with Russian President Vladimir Putin for 90 minutes. They talked about possible military cooperation and a lasting cease-fire between the Russian-backed Syrian government and U.S.-backed rebels.

But he said later that a number of sticking points remained, and he suggested he’s skeptical that Russia would uphold its end of any bargain.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Given the gaps of trust that exist, that’s a tough negotiation. And we haven’t yet closed the gaps in a way where we think it would actually work.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: For his part, Putin sounded much more optimistic.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN, Russia (through translator): I have grounds to believe that the agreements will be reached in the next few days.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: One headline-making moment from the weekend came from the sidelines of the G20 on the issue of climate change. President Obama and Chinese President Xi announced Saturday their governments will formally join last year’s landmark Paris agreement. It sets up a framework for dozens of nations to reduce greenhouse gases in the coming decades.

The president said the U.S. and China standing together on the issue sends a clear message to the world.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Our entrance into this agreement continues the momentum of Paris and should give the rest of the world confidence, whether developed or developing countries, that a low-carbon future is where the world is heading.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: With the G20 now over, Obama flew on to Laos today for a summit with South Asian leaders. He had planned to meet there with the Philippines’ new president, Rodrigo Duterte. But, today, Duterte angrily warned he won’t discuss widespread killings of drug suspects, and he aimed a profanity at Mr. Obama.

PRESIDENT RODRIGO DUTERTE, Philippines (through translator): Son of a (EXPLETIVE DELETED), I will swear at you in that forum.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Hours after hearing that, President Obama his planned meeting with Duterte. The president will be in Laos until Thursday.

For more on what happened during the G20, and what’s to come for the rest of the president’s trip to Asia, we turn to Edward Alden. He’s a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he focuses on U.S. trade policy. And David Ignatius, foreign policy columnist at The Washington Post.

Gentlemen, thank you both very much for being here.

David, I would start with you.

You watched what went down this weekend. What was your take on what happened?

DAVID IGNATIUS, The Washington Post: I think, basically, in terms of bilateral U.S.-China relations, this was a reinforcement of the pattern that we have seen for the last couple of years.

The U.S. and China work together on issues of mutual interest. Climate change has been the obvious example since 2014. They did a significant step forward in agreeing to enter the Paris pact on climate change. That was the headline achievement of the summit.

But on so many other issues where they are not in synch, the South China Sea most obviously, but just the kind of prickly of the U.S.-China relationship, this whole fracas about when the president’s plane landed about who would get off by what ramp — why, ramp gate, I was thinking they should call this — it’s obvious that there is just a lot of distance between the two.

So, I think that’s a snapshot of where the relationship is, as Barack Obama’s presidency ends.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Edward Alden, I know this — we touched on this briefly in the beginning, the issue of this deal. The Chinese deal, this was something the president hoped to take a crack at, but didn’t really succeed.

Can you explain for those who haven’t really been following this, what is the issue that the U.S. and other nations have with China?

EDWARD ALDEN, Council on Foreign Relations: Well, I think trade is one those areas that David mentioned where relations have really gotten more tense over the eight years of the Obama administration.

Steel is really a good example of it. China entered the WTO in 2001. And I think the hope of the United States at the time and of the West was that China would gradually become a more market-oriented economy, would start to look more like the capitalist economies of the West and really adopt those rules in terms of how it structured its economy.

We haven’t really seen that play out. So, particularly in the heavy industries, Chinese governments at very levels heavily subsidize those industries. And so what we have seen is Chinese production increase very, very dramatically. And steel is by far the worst offender here.

So, if you go back to 2000, the United States and China produced about the same about of steel.


WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Fifteen years ago.

EDWARD ALDEN: Fifteen years ago, roughly the same amount, 130 metric tons each, roughly.

Since that time, China’s production has grown by 990 million metric tons. So, it’s increased basically 10-fold. U.S. production has dropped a little bit over that period of time. And so the rest of the world is saying to China, look, you have got to change these practices. It’s not just steel, but steel is the biggest one, where you are subsidizing industries to produce far beyond what the market is dictating. And it’s creating a lot of tensions with your trading partners.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: David, another one of the issues that the president tried to bring up in his meeting with Vladimir Putin was the issue of Syria.

And they tried to — apparently had a long conversation about can there be some sort of a cease-fire? And the president was very open, as open as you can in these types of meetings, to say, even if we got an agreement, which they didn’t get, I’m not sure, the United States can’t be sure that Putin will live up to his end of the bargain.

DAVID IGNATIUS: The level of suspicion in the U.S.-Russia relationship now is as high as I think any time since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Putin is very aggressive in his behavior in Syria, in Ukraine. The technical details of the Syria agreement have been held up for a couple of weeks, but, fundamentally, the problem here is that Putin is allied with Bashar al-Assad, who the U.S. regards as the source of the problem.

And the U.S., although it says otherwise, is fighting alongside the al-Qaida affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front. It’s renamed itself, but it’s still the al-Qaida affiliate. It’s a very awkward position for us to be in. And it’s just not clear how you get an agreement when those are the basic elements.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: David is talking about this issue of trust with regards to Russia.

The issue of trust with regards to China comes up as well, particularly about climate change. And we saw them signing these Paris accords on Saturday. These were accords that were agreed to back in January.

A lot of critics of that agreement say the U.S. can put whatever smiley face it wants to on these agreements and do what it can to cut carbon emissions, but that the Chinese — it’s a voluntary agreement — they won’t do the same.

So, to the same point, do you think that the U.S. can trust China on this particular issue?

EDWARD ALDEN: I think, on climate, there is the potential for a different dynamic. I think that falls more into David’s first basket of areas where the U.S. and China really see a common interest.

If you look at trade, the Chinese see it very zero sum. So, if they produce less steel, other countries are going to produce more steel. They’re going to export less. They’re going to import more. They lose.

They see trade in zero sum, mercantilist terms. And the climate issue really is different. I think, first, the Chinese do recognize the reality of global climate change. They recognize their role in it. So I think they are genuinely worried about that.

Domestically, they have got an enormous problem with pollution. So to the extent that they continue to use dirty coal, that causes domestic unrest, because you can’t breathe in the major cities.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: David, last question to you.

This is obviously the president’s last trip to Asia, after his much heralded pivot to Asia. Do you think, now that we’re hearing the end of the Obama presidency, that that has borne fruit for the president’s policies?

DAVID IGNATIUS: I think it was sound conceptually. One of the tragedies of Barack Obama’s presidency is that he’s been unable to escape the gravitational field of the Middle East.

He’s ended up fighting a war against ISIS. He’s back in Iraq. He’s in Syria, although he doesn’t want to be. I think, for countries in Asia, they see a rising China pushing its weight around more and more. They want to feel that the U.S. is really there to stay as a reliable, dependable ally. The president’s last big effort is going to be to try to pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the big trade agreement.


WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Huge congressional opposition.

DAVID IGNATIUS: Well, there’s a lot of congressional opposition. There’s also quite a lot of support.

But I think Obama rightly sees that, in terms of our credibility in Asia to countries like Vietnam, the Philippines, even Australia, it’s crucial that he get this passed, or do everything he can in the lame-duck session to — as a demonstration to people we’re still — we’re still here, we still care about Asia.

If the president leaves office with that going down in a tailspin, I think we’re going to see a story of China asserting itself with new power and credibility, because America will have been seen as the ally that couldn’t deliver.

EDWARD ALDEN: Can I just say that I agree very much with David on that, but I’m not optimistic about the TPP getting through in this administration.


EDWARD ALDEN: I have watched the votes on every big trade deal going back to NAFTA.

And what you have seen is a hardening of opposition in the Democratic Party and a fracturing of the Republican Party, under the influence of Donald Trump, who has, of course, come out very strongly against these trade agreements.

In the past, Democratic presidents could rely on pretty strong Republican support. I think that’s vanished.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Gentlemen, thank you both very much for being here.

EDWARD ALDEN: Thank you.


The post Successes and shortfalls from this year’s G20 summit appeared first on PBS NewsHour.