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The Buenos Aires G20 Meeting: Has Rules-based global Trade survived?

By Gerhard Erasmus
11 Dec 2018
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The Buenos Aires G20 Meeting: Has Rules-based global Trade survived?

The communiqué issued at the end of the Group of 20 meeting in Buenos Aires recently (30 November and 1 December 2018) reads like the to-do list for the world’s leading countries. It also mentions plans for dealing with urgent global issues. The mere fact that there was agreement to adopt and issue this communiqué was an achievement. At recent international gatherings no final statements were issued. And like most well-crafted political statements, this communiqué contains enough about most issues to allow all sides to declare their satisfaction with its content.

White House officials welcomed the calls for changes to the WTO and global trade and even claimed a win for Donald Trump’s protectionist agenda.[1] (A reference to the risk of protectionism was omitted.) They were also pleased about the fact that Trump’s decision to exit the Paris climate was recorded. Others called this communiqué “a victory for multilateralism”.[2] Stock markets improved, and investors were pleased to learn about an easing of tensions between the U.S. and China.

For many the biggest news was that President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping had agreed to temporarily suspend their trade war. For 90 days, no new tariffs will be imposed. During this period they will endeavour to negotiate a lasting agreement. But Trump subsequently warned that a disappointing outcome could prompt more U.S. tariffs.

Why is this communiqué important? The G20 is an international forum (not a formal international organization) for the governments and central bank governors from 19 countries and the European Union.[3] Taken together the G20 represents 43 key countries from every world region.[4] The G20 started in 1999 in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis. In 2008 the first Summit was held, and the group played a key role in responding to the global financial crisis of that time.

The Buenos Aires Declaration contains 31 numbered paragraphs which note the most pressing concerns of the participating nations.[5] In some instances there are indications about plans for future action. However, important matters were left out, such as Russian aggression against Ukraine and the killing of Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul.

The issues mentioned in the communiqué range from global economic growth, access to education (which is recognised as a “human right”), the benefits of digitalization, infrastructure as a key driver of economic prosperity, food security, gender equality, mobilizing sustainable finance, early childhood development, encouraging the activities of World Health Organization, that refugees are a global concern, transformation towards sustainable development, the crucial role of energy, effective international financial institutions, the monitoring of cross border capital flows, a fair and modern international tax system, concerns about steel excess capacity, to the condemnation of terrorism.

Some of the statements deserve to be quoted more fully:

  • We renew our commitment to work together to improve a rules-based international order that is capable of effectively responding to a rapidly changing world.

  • We reaffirm our commitment to leading the transformation towards sustainable development and support the 2030 Agenda as the framework for advancing this goal and the G20 Action Plan.

  • We underline our continued support to the G20 Africa Partnership, including the Compact with Africa, and other relevant initiatives.

  • We reaffirm our commitment to addressing illicit financial flows that have a detrimental effect on domestic resources mobilization and will continue to take stock of progress.

  • We will continue to tackle climate change, while promoting sustainable development and economic growth. The United States reiterates its decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, and affirms its strong commitment to economic growth and energy access and security, utilizing all energy sources and technologies, while protecting the environment.

  • We will promote energy security, sustainability, resilience, efficiency, affordability and stability, acknowledging that there are varied sources of energy and technological advances to achieve a low emissions future.

  • Strong and effective international financial institutions help underpin growth and sustainable development. We reaffirm our commitment to further strengthening the global financial safety net with a strong, quota-based, and adequately resourced IMF at its centre. We call on the IMF and World Bank to work with borrowers and creditors to improve the recording, monitoring and transparent reporting of public and private debt obligations.

  • We will continue to take steps to address debt vulnerabilities in low income countries by supporting capacity building in public debt and financial management and strengthening domestic policy frameworks.

  • An open and resilient financial system, grounded in agreed international standards, is crucial to support sustainable growth. We will continue to monitor and, if necessary, tackle emerging risks and vulnerabilities in the financial system; and, through continued regulatory and supervisory cooperation, address fragmentation.

  • International trade and investment are important engines of growth, productivity, innovation, job creation and development. We recognize the contribution that the multilateral trading system has made to that end. The system is currently falling short of its objectives and there is room for improvement. We therefore support the necessary reform of the WTO to improve its functioning. We will review progress at our next Summit.

  • We remain committed to prevent and fight corruption and lead by example.

What happens next? Will the U.S. and China reach a trade deal, despite subsequent warnings from President Trump that he would revert to more tariffs if the two sides cannot resolve their differences. He referred to himself as a “Tariff Man” and stressed that he will not hesitate to again raise tariffs on China if it does not agree to fundamentally change its trade practices.[6]

A “fundamental change” in Chinese trade practices as a precondition for a positive outcome sets the bar very high. But this is an opening salvo. Ultimately US-China rivalry is about more than a trade war. Additional negotiations for resolving their differences will be necessary, including how to reform the WTO, counter certain Chinese trade practices, and addressing climate change challenges. A breakthrough on tariffs will be a vital first step but will require bigger contexts and broader participation. The Buenos Aires G20 meeting has not transformed the world into a new bilateral arena.


[1] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-12-01/g-20-statement-omits-mention-of-protectionism-cites-reform-need

[2] Ibid.

[3] The members of the G20 are Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Republic of Korea, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Turkey, the United Kingdom, the United States and the European Union.

[4] https://www.theglobalist.com/g20-how-many-countries-really/

[5] Download the full text:  pdf G20 Leaders Declaration - Buenos Aires, 1 December 2018 (569 KB)

[6] https://thehill.com/homenews/administration/419613-trump-warns-china-i-am-a-tariff-man

About the Author(s)

Gerhard Erasmus

Gerhard Erasmus

Gerhard Erasmus is a founder of tralac and Professor Emeritus (Law Faculty), University of Stellenbosch. He holds degrees from the University of the Free State, Bloemfontein (B.Iuris, LL.B), Leiden in the Netherlands (LLD) and a Master’s from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He has consulted for governments, the private sector and regional organisations in southern Africa. He has also been involved in the drafting of the South African and Namibian constitutions. He grew up in Namibia.

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