Things to watch out for at September's G20 highlight

What can we expect?

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 Despite numerous calls along the way for Russia’s membership of the G8 to be rescinded for its poor record on human rights, it was a natural and original member of the first G20 leaders’ summit and its presidency this year can be seen as a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.

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

Hugo Dobson is Professor of Japan’s International Relations and Head of the School of East Asian Studies at the University of Sheffield. He has attended a number of G8 and G20 summits since 2008 and has written widely on the subject of global summitry and Asia’s role.

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What it’s like to be a Syrian refugee in Paris

“We fled from terror and it found us again here. It feels like it is always behind us, stalking us.”

Walid al Omari arrived in Paris a little less than a month ago. Having fled the slaughter of his homeland and undertaken the long and dangerous journey, like tens of thousands of other Syrian refugees, to western Europe, he was finally safe.

Ten days later, a wave of brutal violence tore through the French capital as gunmen and suicide bombers put an end to the lives of 130 people who had been out enjoying a drink, dinner, a concert or a football match.

“It felt like terrorism was everywhere,” recalls the 57-year-old Walid, a former small business owner and journalist from the suburbs of Damascus.

“We fled from terror and it found us again here. It feels like it is always behind us, stalking us.”

Syrian refugees, not just in Paris but across Europe and North America, have since found themselves caught up in a storm of suspicion. The backlash started after it emerged that at least two of the attackers arrived in Europe among refugees travelling to Greece, while a Syrian passport was found next to one of the bodies.

It has not yet been confirmed if the two men were really Syrian – all suspects whose identities have so far been made public were either French or Belgian – while the passport is widely believed to be a fake. But, already, several US states have said they will not accept any more refugees from Syria. In Europe, Poland has called for the EU’s quota scheme for resettling refugees to be scrapped, while lawmakers in France, Germany and elsewhere have called for caps on refugee and migrant numbers.

“I fear the worse,” says Sabreen al Rassace, who works for Revivre, a charity that helps Syrian refugees resettle in France. She says she has been swamped by calls by concerned refugees in the days following the attacks.

“They ask me if the papers they have been given since they arrived in France will be taken away, if they’ll be sent back to Syria,” she says.

Anas Fouiz, who arrived in Paris in September, has experienced the backlash against refugees first hand.

“One waiter at a bar asked me where I was from and when I said Syria he said that I must be a terrorist, that all Arab people are terrorists,” says the 27-year-old from Damascus, who had been a fashion student before leaving for Europe.

The irony is that the terrorist organisation that claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks, the Islamic State, is, along with Bashar al Assad’s army and other militant groups, responsible for the long list of atrocities that prompted many like Walid and Anas to flee their homes.

“As a man in Syria you have the choice of joining the Syrian army, the Islamic state or another militant group, or you run away,” says Anas.

He remembers seeing news of the attacks unfold on television screens in bars and cafés in the Bastille area of Paris – close to where much of the carnage took place – as he drank with a friend. Desensitised by having seen so much violence and death in his home city, he didn’t feel any shock or fear.

“I just felt bad, because I know this situation,” he says. “You just ask yourself ‘why? Why do these people have to die?’.”

Perhaps a more pressing cause for concern is how easily extremists in Europe can travel to Syria and back again through the porous borders on the EU’s fringes – as several of the Paris attacks suspects are thought to have done.

Both Anas and Walid speak of the lax security they faced when entering Europe.

“Turkey lets people across the border for $20,” says Walid.

“In Greece, they just ask you to write your nationality, they don’t check passports,” adds Anas. “It’s the same in Hungary and Macedonia.”

Nevertheless, and despite his experience with the waiter, Anas says he is happy with the welcome he has received by the vast majority of the French people.

In fact, at a time when fear and violence risk deepening religious and social rifts, Anas’s story is a heartening tale of divisions being bridged.

Upon first arriving in Paris he slept on the streets, before a passer-by, a woman of Moroccan origin, offered him a room in her flat. He then spent time at a Christian organization that provides shelter for refugees, before moving in with a French-Jewish family he was put in touch with through another charity.

He says the biggest problem is that he misses his parents, who are still in Damascus.

“I speak to my mum twice a day on the phone,” he says. “She asks me if I’m okay, if I’m keeping safe. She’s worried about me.”