Why Summits Matter

CANBERRA – It is easy to be skeptical about the kind of meetings that US President Barack Obama, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and a small army of other global and regional leaders swept through in China, Myanmar, and Australia this month. Multilateral summitry lends itself to familiar gibes about wildly expensive photo opportunities, set-piece speeches endorsing pre-cooked lowest-common-denominator communiqués, and more time devoted to parading around in silly shirts than to policy substance.

But November’s three summits – the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Beijing, the East Asian Summit in Naypyidaw, and the G-20 meeting in Brisbane – should have the skeptics eating their words. Each contributed substantially to the quality of global governance, as summit diplomacy ideally should, in three distinct ways: formal outcomes, useful byproducts, and positive atmospherics.

In Beijing, the major formal outcome – important after years of over-promising and under-delivering by APEC – was the new momentum generated for the Free Trade Agreement for Asia-Pacific as a complementary mechanism to the US-initiated Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). But the biggest news was the summit’s byproducts, especially the announcement by the United States and China of a joint agreement on targets for cutting greenhouse-gas emissions – a breakthrough that will transform the dynamics of the global climate debate.

Another important byproduct was China’s use of the occasion to launch its new regional investment bank and $40 billion Silk Road development fund. And the side meeting between Xi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, designed to defuse mounting tensions over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute, contributed significantly to positive atmospherics.