The attacks on Saudi Arabia grabbed all the headline attention at the G1 Global Conference in Tokyo, but the day-long think-in in Tokyo was more than just a survey of the dramatic headlines and images that had dominated the weekend media.
The event is now in its ninth year, as a global leaders’ conference conducted entirely in English on the big themes of international affairs, business, culture and society from a Japanese perspective.
One of the organizers called it the “Davos of Tokyo,” and while it may have fallen short of the famous Swiss Alpine gathering in numbers and glamour, the Sept. 16 event certainly rivaled it in the breadth and ambition of the agenda.
Shinzo Abe, the prime minister of Japan, set a high bar in an opening video address in which he said it was “Japan’s mission” to lead the world in resetting the transparent, rules-based international order that has been weakened by the populist waves in the US, Europe and elsewhere.
On the theme of “sustainable innovation in times of disruption”, the G1 followed a familiar pattern of plenaries, breakouts, workshops and networking, in the functional setting of the Globis University in downtown Tokyo.
What it lacked in Alpine splendour, it more than made up for with the convenience of a one-day colloquium. But first, the weekend’s news stole the show at the opening plenary, and was an elephant in the room for the rest of the day.
Taro Kono, the Japanese defense minister, declared the attacks on Saudi oil installations and the threat to global oil supplies the “most worrying scenario” in the world today.
He was backed up by John Chipman, director general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, who criticized the failure of the US and its allies in the Middle East and elsewhere to counter Iranian expansion in the region.
“The strategic response to this has not been properly considered, and now Saudi Arabia’s most important strategic asset has been attacked,” he said.
The attacks on Saudi oil installations also featured prominently in a later session, conducted behind-closed-doors under the Chatham House Rule, at which security experts debated the origins and impact of the attacks, including the appropriate level of response from Saudi Arabia and its allies.
Chipman also spoke frankly about the confrontation between the US and China over trade, technology and digital strategy. “The US and the West has only just woken up to China’s strategic rivalry,” he said.
Referring to the Soviet space launch in the 1950s that stirred the US into a space race with the USSR, Chipman said: “China wants a unipolar Asia in a multipolar world, and that is a ‘Sputnik’ moment for the Americans,” he said.
There was skepticism that US President Donald Trump was the man to lead an effective rule-based order against Chinese expansion.
Mieko Nakabayashi, professor of social sciences at Waseda University, who spent many years in the corridors of power in Washington, said: “A lot of people say that Trump is a disaster, but he also has a lot of supporters. He might win next year’s election, which would make for a very adventurous four years to come.”
Given the East Asian venue and focus of the event, the threat from China, and its relations with neighbors such as Japan, Korea and the Southeast Asian countries, were recurring themes of the day.
A session entitled “Geo-politics: US-China hegemony in Asia” had two experts from opposite sides of the issue. Abraham Denmark, American director of the Asia program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said the US was in the middle of the biggest debate about foreign policy since the end of the Cold War.
Although recent polls suggested that a large number of Americans still support an active role for the US in trade and global affairs, it was also apparent that the old rules of engagement with the rest of the world were no longer sufficient.
“We used to believe that engaging with China was a good thing in itself. Now we have to balance competition and co-operation, and will co-operate only on matters of mutual self-interest,” Denmark said.
Zha Daojiong, of the School of International Studies at Peking University, said there had been some “positive momentum” in recent weeks with both sides pulling back from higher trade tariffs, adding: “What is the antagonism between China and the USA? It is about primacy, and somebody has to be number one. They are like two 800-pound gorillas rising and falling under their own weight.”
Lynn Kuok, of the IISS, gave a Southeast Asian perspective on the issue. “Trump’s insistence that other countries have to ban Huawei means that the USA is saying ‘you have to chose between USA and China,’ but it should not be a choice between two countries but between rules and non-rules based orders.”
The session turned into a barbed exchange between the US and Chinese representatives. “If you give technology to Huawei, you’ve got to assume it will end up with the People’s Liberation Army,” said
Denmark, who also complained about Chinese state subsidies to corporations. Zha Daojiong responded with allegations about subsidies to US defense manufacturers such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
“Where is the state, and where is the company with them,” he said. Taking a swipe at US financial policy, he said: “Negative interest rates are not very capitalist.”
The G1 was not just about high matters of geopolitics, however. One big theme was the progress towards achieving the UN’s sustainable development goals in environmental, social responsibility and corporate governance.
Also high on the agenda was gender equality. In a session entitled “Womenomics and Gender Equality in Entrepreneurship,” Kathy Matsui, chief Japan strategist at Goldman Sachs, produced recent research showing a direct link between economic growth and greater female participation in the global workforce.
“I believe that if you close the gender gap, you could actually boost global GDP by as much as $5 trillion,” she said. The Tokyo gathering also focused on events that will put Japan in the global spotlight and boost tourism.
The Rugby World Cup begins next week, and the country is hosting the Olympic Games in 2020.
In a session headed “How to evolve into a unique and sustainable tourism super-power,” experts discussed Japan’s ambitious plans to increase the number of international visitors and get them to spend more while on holiday. The government wants 40 million visitors next year.
About 75 per cent of foreign visitors to Japan come from four Asian countries — China, Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong — and the government would like to attract more Americans, Europeans and Australians, who tend to stay longer and spend more.
This year a 30 per cent drop in the number of Korean tourists is expected as Japan and South Korea square off amid a trade dispute sparked by events dating back to the Second World War.
Of foreign visitors to Japan are from four Asian countries — China, Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong.