Opinion

James Brown
Summit silly season for global leaders begins with G20

November is summit season for global leaders and their entourages. Right now, officials in capital cities the world over are scheduling, briefing and fretting over the feast of looming diplomatic jamborees. First up next week is the leaders’ meeting of the G20 economic summit, this year being held by the shores of the Turkish resort town of Antalya. A day later, the world’s most powerful leaders will fold their delegations into aircraft bound for Manila and the leaders’ summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum – best known for placing leaders into school class photos with matching shirts. Then a hop across the South China Sea to Kuala Lumpur for the East Asia Summit on November 21. 

Those leaders still part of the Commonwealth back up for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Malta five days later before converging on the biggest summit of them all: the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris on November 30. Two weeks of back-to-back meetings that could quite possibly shape the planet. The silly season for global diplomacy.

The scale of these events is awesome. Forty-thousand delegates are expected in Paris, 10,000 APEC participants will descend upon Manila. Each leaders’ summit is itself preceded months before by smaller conferences where officials frame the policy detail. The logistics are spectacular. Australians remember well the gridlock of last year’s G20 in Brisbane, which turned a one-kilometre drive through the CBD into a 45-minute ordeal – even for world leaders. 

The security arrangements are complex: blanket no-fly zones; wide security perimeters and exclusion areas; advanced threat screenings, particularly in Turkey, where recent bombings have killed hundreds. Antalya is several hours’ drive from the beach where young Syrian refugee Aylan Kurdi drowned earlier this year. Though the G20 is focused on global economic governance, it’s likely that the regional conflicts of the Middle East and Russia’s military resurgence will get an airing, particularly in individual interactions between leaders.

Re-reading Bob Carr’s blessedly indiscreet diary detailing his time as foreign minister, a picture emerges of the chaotic timetable of diplomatic side-transactions that cluster around these global events. These are seemingly casual but all too choreographed “pull-asides” where leaders find a moment to press a point on a colleague or elicit a national view on an issue. The bilateral meetings between leaders where prepared deals are capped and signed, crammed into the margins of larger discussions. Presidential speed dating sessions for new leaders such as Malcolm Turnbull and Canada’s Justin Trudeau, who’ll likely get a mere 30 minutes to cover all the issues of consequence with the leader of the free world.

The East Asia Summit (EAS) in Kuala Lumpur is of most immediate concern to Australia, particularly given recent shifts in regional dynamics led by tensions in the South China Sea. The summit brings together the countries of South-East Asia with South Korea, Japan, China, Russia, the United States, Australia and New Zealand. Only 10 years old, it has become the main institution through which the competitive tensions at play in Asia are discussed – because it involves all the main players, particularly the US. 

The fact that the US joined the EAS in 2011 was no easy thing. Australia was one of a handful of countries that lobbied the US to use this particular summit as a means to become further integrated in Asia. Then prime minister Kevin Rudd personally convinced US President Barack Obama this was important. In the words of Obama’s first-term senior adviser on Asia, Jeffrey Bader, joining the EAS “laid the basis for US leadership in the new emerging regional architecture of the Asia-Pacific region and demonstrated graphically the higher priority the Obama administration placed on the Asia-Pacific”. It also set back Chinese efforts to advance alternative regional diplomatic forums that might have excluded US involvement. Australian officials still see US involvement in the East Asia Summit as critical to stability in Asia.

But China is reticent to see the EAS as a forum in which its activities, particularly in the South China Sea, can be criticised. As it has for decades, China insists that competing and disputed territorial claims in the South China Sea be resolved bilaterally between nations: a concerning prospect for a small nation such as the Philippines, locked in a bitter dispute with China over who owns small reefs in the South China Sea such as the Scarborough Shoal and the potentially prosperous waters around it. 

To resolve what it sees as China’s illegal occupation of the Scarborough Shoal, the Philippines has advanced a case against China in the Netherlands-based Permanent Court of Arbitration. This 100-year-old institution, constituted by 117 countries, has a mandate to work towards “peaceful resolution of disputes between states, organisations and private parties” and has agreed to hear the Philippines case even though China has refused to join the proceedings. A ruling is expected sometime next year.

The Philippines arbitration is precisely the sort of South China Sea process that Australian leaders and officials have been strongly recommending for years: one based on the rule of law, rather than the rule of might underpinned by forced occupations, jostling between ships at sea, and construction of island fortresses.

Australia has been carefully calibrating its South China Sea policy to avoid taking a stake in the vexing multi-party disputes over borders, while also reinforcing the overall principles of stability and freedom of navigation. It has hewed close to recent US statements expressing concern over Chinese actions, but wisely chosen not to precisely mirror recent freedom-of-navigation operations conducted by the US Navy. 

Bob Carr writes that “in Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok or Jakarta – Australia’s alliance with the US is seen as redundant and puzzling”. I wouldn’t go quite so far. At different times South-East Asian nations have seen Australia’s US alliance as strength – particularly in the face of Chinese maritime assertiveness. But there is merit in reminding our near neighbours that the foreign policy of the US is not ipso facto the foreign policy of Australia.

During summit silly season and beyond there are three messages that Australian leaders and officials should press on the competition taking place in the South China Sea and in the wider Asian region. The first is our strong support for the international principles and US-led processes that have kept Asia stable for many decades. 

The second, though, is that there are regional issues on which we would prefer the US move closer to Australia’s policy – regional banking infrastructure and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea being prominent examples. 

And finally, we should be prepared to be more expansive in our support for the sensible South China Sea arbitration initiated by the Philippines. Of all the diplomatic activity under way, the Philippine model offers the best chance for detailed arguments to be heard and an eventual solution between countries to be found.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 7, 2015 as "Rising to the summits". Subscribe here.

James Brown
is the research director of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.