The 2016 Hangzhou G20 Summit Meeting: A Success for Anyone?

Dubbed “the political equivalent of the Olympics,” this year’s G20, or Group of 20, summit was held on September 4-5 in Hangzhou, China, and brought together the heads of state of the top 20 economies in the world. Together, participating nations make up two-thirds of the population and 85% of the global economy. The G20 has grown in influence and importance since member states’ response to the 2008 global financial crisis, when the G20 organized fiscal stimulus packages and “rebuilt confidence in the international financial system.” Since then, G20 meetings have been an opportunity to focus not only on the economy but on other international issues. The theme in Hangzhou this year, opened by President Xi Jinping, was “Towards an Innovative, Invigorated, Interconnected and Inclusive World Economy.” Yet as much as the Hangzhou Summit wanted to promote international cooperation, the reality of the diplomatic tensions between key members led some heads of state to leave less successful than others.


Before the Summit: Sherpas and Media Buildup

The official summit meetings take place between heads of state, but important discussions and negotiations are made prior to the actual conference. Nations send representatives called Sherpas who meet in order to discuss and produce preliminary agreements. This year’s Sherpa meeting was focused on climate change, a uniquely important aspect of the Hangzhou summit. Before the official Summit even started, the Sherpa meetings resulted in praise and promise to follow the Paris Agreements on the environment, drawn up earlier this year. The Sherpa meetings set a hopeful tone regarding the commitment to react to climate change at the Summit. While this seems like quite the accomplishment considering the amount of work done to even recognize climate change as a relevant global issue, the vast majority of that work was already accomplished in Paris. Heads of state were likely hopeful about, if unsurprised by, the agreements made in the Sherpa meetings and the subsequent expectation of this year’s G20 summit to produce good news in regards to the fight against climate change.

Media reporting up to the summit varied in tone. Chinese news sources focused primarily on looking forward to summit agreements regarding international trade and investment as well as the Chinese emphasis on “green financing,” which is a focus on environmentally-friendly and sustainable technology and development practices. The Chinese government also placed an emphasis on the economy as the main topic, instead of, for example, the tensions between China and Japan over the South China Sea. That dispute was recently complicated by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague ruling in favor of the Philippines and against China’s territorial claims. The careful emphasis on the economy by the Chinese government is not just due to the economy being the main point of G20 summits, but also in response to the extreme diplomatic tension over the uncertain future of the South China Sea dispute. Considering even Chinese news sources noted the less than friendly atmosphere between Japan and China, it is clear there was fear the Hangzhou Summit could have derailed into a debate on security and aggression. The Chinese government clearly wanted to avoid that outcome and instead focus on constructive and positive economic outcomes at the summit.

Lead-up to the 2016 Summit was not all focused on what agreements heads of state would produce or what topics would be discussed. China’s image and reputation were also on the line. The New York Times insisted one of China’s main goals, on a very basic level, was to successfully organize the gathering itself, quoting Matthew Goodman from the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Further than just being a successful host, nearly all news sources agree China had a keen desire to be seen less as a low-cost manufacturing state and more as a high-tech, modern economy driver. Hangzhou was not chosen at random to host the country’s first G20 summit; Hangzhou is not only a beautiful tourist destination but also the home of internet giant Alibaba and many other internet-based companies, which have drawn young entrepreneurs and international business to the city. The goal of the Hangzhou summit was to not only produce agreements regarding the global economy, but also to successfully and safely host one of the most influential political gatherings in the world while projecting China’s modern high-tech image.

Despite the carefully chosen location and determination to be a successful host, China did not escape media speculation or criticism. Controversy already surrounded the summit meetings before heads of state arrived. China prepared Hangzhou to receive the conference by extending worker’s vacation periods, cutting hours during the week of the summit, and giving incentives for citizens to leave the city altogether, citing traffic and security concerns as motivation. Restrictions on shipping and receiving packages forced many places in Hangzhou, especially restaurants, to close; in at least one case, Uighurs, a Muslim minority, were restricted from cooking. Security was also heavy throughout the city, limiting movement. These concerns were, of course, highlighted by mainly Western journalists.

Accomplishments of the Hangzhou Summit

G20 summits typically result in a series of agreements and affirmations by member states, and the Hangzhou Summit produced a number of positive outcomes centered primarily on the economy put forth in the G20 Leader’s Communique, which outlines the Hangzhou Action Plan. The White House released a report highlighting a number of positive developments, including that world leaders “reaffirmed their commitments to refrain from competitive devaluations” of their currencies. Key issues like China’s flooding of the steel market were also addressed and the G20 agreed to a Global Forum to address the issue. Positive statements on inclusive growth policies and promises to ratify the World Trade Organization (WTO) Trade Facilitation Agreement were included in the economics-heavy summit. Also present in the Communique are themes of effectiveness and efficiency regarding global financial governance, sustainable development, open global trade, and stability in the economy.

Unique to and of particular interest regarding the 2016 Summit was the emphasis placed on the environment and sustainability. The Hangzhou Action Plan put in place through the Communique lists member states’ support for the Paris Agreement on climate change as well as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Addis Ababa Action Agenda on financing sustainability and development matters. Specifically, six out of 48 total clauses in the Action Plan specifically referenced and voiced support for key aspects regarding the environment. These agreements, including clause 21 on the development of green financing and clause 23 on developing efficient energy sources, were agreements highlighted by the Chinese government and the Sherpa meetings as critical focal points of the Hangzhou Summit. The other clauses included the commitment to sustainable development through the 2030 Agenda and in areas like agriculture. Leaders also voiced support for agreements on transport efficiency, including the Montreal Protocol, and on building a ‘green’ global economy, including the Environmental Goods Agreement. Overall, the affirmations made by member states are representative of the goals set forth by President Xi Jinping at the beginning of the Summit as well as the broader G20 commitment to improving and cooperating on the global economy, with the new focus on sustainability and the environment.

Aftermath of the Summit and China’s Goals

The Hangzhou Summit produced a communique that focused on an interconnected world economy with a special focus on sustainability and the environment; however, the conference was not a total success for all. From the US perspective, there were few real victories: the pledge to ratify the Paris Agreement and cut greenhouse gasses is arguably the most successful aspect of the conference, even though the conference also included consensus on a number of economic issues. However, the Action Plan, despite being the resolution of the conference, was not at all the main focus of media coverage, and according to some the actual economic and environmental issues were not even the focus of the summit itself. The 2016 Summit was a veritable whirlwind of tense diplomatic incidents, beginning for Obama before he even exited his plane. Obama met with Putin which resulted in no agreements on the Syrian crisis or cybersecurity concerns, and Obama assured that sanctions against the Russians would not be easing anytime soon. He also had a tense meeting with President Erdogan of Turkey. US relations with host country China are also incredibly tense for multiple reasons, including but not limited to the South China Sea dispute and the proposed US-South Korean Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) Antimissile system, which China strongly dislikes. While these issues did not distract the US and China from collaborating on economic measures, it is also true that the summit did nothing substantial to warm or significantly change relations. The Hangzhou Summit was also the first of a few stops made by Obama in Asia, and the outcomes of the Summit was overshadowed by the tense meetings in Hangzhou and the controversy involving a cancelled meeting with the Philippines over statements made by the Philippines’ president. These diplomatic tensions made for a more dramatic story than the economic and pro-environmental outcomes, which distracted the media and the public from the positive aspects of the conference.

In contrast to the US, China should be satisfied with the outcome of the Hangzhou summit. There were no serious security concerns, and only a mild, initial focus on the effective emptying of the city and the degree to which city life was disrupted to present a better view of Hangzhou. Most importantly, the G20 meetings were successful in highlighting the commitment of China and the global economy towards ‘green financing’ and environmental sustainability. The prioritization of the environment and sustainability by summit participants is made explicit in the Hangzhou Action Plan, an aspect of the summit emphasized as a key topic for the G20 following the Paris Agreement. This was accomplished without explicitly addressing the serious diplomatic problems plaguing China at the moment – most notably, of course, the security issues around and legal legitimacy of China’s heavily contested claim to the South China Sea. Instead, most diplomatic tension gathered between President Obama and states like Turkey and Russia, effectively keeping China out of the spotlight during and after the summit. Other victories for China’s image include Canada’s submission to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a recently created international organization designed to be in league with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. On the whole, the Hangzhou Summit reinforced China’s leadership in the regional and global financial sector.

Whether or not the successful completion of the G20 meeting owes more to heads of state willingly ignoring the South China Sea controversy in favor of other diplomatic tensions or to the concentration on truly dire environmental matters as a priority is up for debate; either way, China should celebrate the relatively smooth Hangzhou Summit and the progress made there. Unfortunately for the US in particular, the economic and environmental successes of this year’s G20 gathering were overshadowed by other concerns.


About Erin Bovee

Contributing editor for the Asia column / Senior studying peace, international organizations, and human rights in the School of International Service / Email me at / Twitter @ErinBovee