G20 summit ends with pledge to fight protectionism and boost growth

Major differences on geopolitical issues remain after inconclusive gathering

 German chancellor Angela Merkel shakes hand with China president Xi Jinping  before their meeting in Hangzhou, China, on Monday, where they attended the G20 summit. Photograh: Etienne Oliveau/EPA

German chancellor Angela Merkel shakes hand with China president Xi Jinping before their meeting in Hangzhou, China, on Monday, where they attended the G20 summit. Photograh: Etienne Oliveau/EPA


World leaders at the G20 have agreed to oppose trade protectionism to help lift flagging economic growth, but the launch of three ballistic missiles by North Korea was an explosive reminder of risks to global security.

“We have agreed to support the multilateral trade system and oppose protectionism,” President Xi Jinping said after the G20 summit in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou. “We need to reignite the engine of growth via innovation.”

While the communiqué issued at the end of the gathering focused on jump-starting the global economy, fighting protectionism and removing trade barriers, the statement contained little in terms of concrete steps.

Many of the leaders gathered in Hangzhou for the G20 face rising populist pressure at home as economic growth falters. German chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU party came third behind an anti-immigrant party in a regional election in Germany on Sunday.

The biggest achievement of the G20 was probably the decision by China and the US to ratify the Paris agreement on cutting climate-warming emissions on the eve of the summit. And as is so often the case, it was the bilateral meetings on the sidelines that attracted most attention at the G20, which represents 85 per cent of the world’s gross domestic product and two-thirds of its population.

US president Barack Obama met Russia’s Vladimir Putin for talks about a ceasefire in Syria. Earlier in the day, US secretary of state John Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov tried and failed to come up with terms for a ceasefire for the second time in a fortnight, although they are due to meet again this week.

There was still considerable to-and-fro about “Stairgate”, after Mr Obama was forced to disembark from Air Force One on a small built-in staircase, sparking a row between US and Chinese officials. China said there had been no snub and Mr Obama played down the significance of the event, which was seen as emblematic of the tense relations between the two countries.

At her first G20 summit, British prime minister Theresa May held talks about a post-Brexit trade deal with her Australian counterpart Malcolm Turnbull, after a strong warning by Japan that its companies may move to the EU after the UK leaves the bloc.

The North Korean missile launch was a reminder of the many security threats facing the world’s 20 biggest economies. North Korea has previously timed missile launches to coincide with global meetings as a sign of defiance. After the launch, South Korea’s president Park Geun-hye and Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe met and agreed to monitor the situation. Mr Abe described the launch as “unforgiveable”.

China is North Korea’s only real ally of substance, although it has signed up to sanctions against Pyongyang following a fourth nuclear test this year, followed by a series of missile tests.

Mr Xi said China was committed to the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, the Xinhua news agency reported, but he also restated China’s opposition to the US deployment of the THAAD anti-missile system in South Korea to counter the nuclear threat from North Korea. China and Russia oppose the deployment as they fear the system can also be used against their missiles.

Ms Park said THAAD was not aimed at encroaching on the security interests of a third country. “Following the North’s firing of the Musudan missile and the submarine-launched ballistic missile, threats that our people feel is at an unprecedented level, and it is different from the level of threats China may feel,” she said.

In the run-up to the meeting, Mr Obama had warned China against aggression in the South China Sea after a United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea arbitration tribunal finding against China’s territorial ambitions in the region, but the issue did not seem to have gone any further.