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Things to watch out for at September's G20 highlight

What can we expect?

New Statesman
Leaders will gather in St Petersburg from 5 to 6 September. Photograph: Getty Images

On 1 January 2013, the presidency of the Group of 20 (G20) developed and developing countries passed from Mexico to Russia. After a series of uninspiring and largely overlooked G20 finance ministers’ meeting, the highlight of the year will be the gathering of the leaders in St Petersburg from 5 to 6 September. But what can we expect of this eighth summit of G20 leaders?

The G20’s decision to meet in St Petersburg this year is part of a longer process by which Russia has become a central member of the various alphanumeric configurations that have come to characterize global governance. Rewind to the end of the Cold War and it was the Group of 7 (G7) that provided the mechanism by which moral support and financial assistance was extended to the former Soviet Union. Since then, Russia went through a series of different statuses within the G7 from invited observer via full member, thereby creating a Group of 8 (G8) in 1998, to host of the 2006 St Petersburg Summit (famed for the "Yo Blair!" incident when President George W. Bush was caught on microphone hailing Prime Minister Tony Blair). Despite numerous calls along the way for Russia’s membership of the G8 to be rescinded for its poor record on human rights, it was a natural and original member of the first G20 leaders’ summit and its presidency this year can be seen as a culmination of a process by which it has become an integral and recognized member of international society.

At the same time, Russia’s hosting of the G20 will also play out domestically. Leaders of all political shades have attempted to enhance their reputation and standing at home, often with elections in mind, by exploiting the tailwind that hosting a successful summit provides (pace Gordon Brown "saving the world" at the 2009 G20 London Summit). Considering that Russia will host both the Winter Olympics and G8 in the Black Sea resort of Sochi in 2014, Vladimir Putin will be blessed in the near future with numerous opportunities to showboat both internationally and domestically.

Then there is the actual agenda. The exact focus of the summit’s agenda has been developed over the year and will be a mixture of legacy issues from previous summits and new issues that the Russians hope to add. No doubt the leaders will continue their efforts to stimulate economic growth, as well as combat tax evasion. However, this is an agenda that differs only slightly from that of the G8 leaders when they met by Loch Erne, Northern Ireland earlier this year. Since the first summit of the G20 leaders in November 2008, there have been repeated claims of the G8’s irrelevance and predictions of its ultimate demise. However, it appears as if reports of the G8’s death have been greatly exaggerated, and in fact the G8 may in fact be functioning as a caucus of the "developed" nations within the larger forum of the G20.

Looking beyond St Petersburg, Australia will host the G20 in 2014 and Turkey in 2015. Thereafter, the presidency will rotate on a regional basis with the Asian grouping (China, Indonesia, Japan and South Korea) set to host in 2016. South Korea welcomed the G20 to Seoul in 2010 so is unlikely to host again so soon. Both China (seeking to increase its voice in international affairs) and Japan (scheduled to chair the G8 in 2016) have declared their interest in hosting the summit. Indonesia, as a rising middle power, might be the compromise figure everyone can agree to. Whatever the outcome, the process of confirming a host will require a degree of cooperation. Although seemingly minor, this development could provide some optimism in terms of regional cooperation within a group of Asian countries that have historically and recently shown little interest in cooperating unless strategically required to do so.

Imagining Asian regional cooperation in the future inevitably requires a shift in thinking beyond a single-country perspective, which is exactly the approach that the School of East Asian Studies at the University of Sheffield of which I am proud to currently be Head has sought to develop since its establishment as a Centre of Japanese Studies fifty years ago this year. Next month our Vice Chancellor, Professor Sir Keith Burnett, will open the Kyoto Science and Technology Forum, as part of a delegation from the university forging links with science and industry in a country uniquely poised to tackle the big issues facing the world – energy, health and sustainability. Engaging with countries like Japan has never been more important.

The East Asia region of 1963 and that of today are barely recognizable as a result of Japan and China’s rise. However, some important issues remain unresolved whether they be the divided Korean Peninsula or the continued American military presence. These changes and continuities inevitably cut across a single country’s concerns and make the region not only one of the most dynamic in the world today but also one necessary to understand for all our futures, not just the G20’s.