It was an omen too trite to be invented. Thursday evening, as the remaining contingent of G-20 leaders descended on Seoul for the 11-12 November summit, they brought with them a dust cloud that moved in on west winds and spackled the city, encrusting the windows of the gleaming skyscrapers.
Initially high expectations for the summit had sunk as it became clear that the heads of state had packed a dizzying assortment of grievances.
British Prime Minister David Cameron arrived from China, where he had brought up censorship and religious freedom in a speech at Peking University. He also wore a poppy, honouring his fallen countrymen ahead of Armistice Day while unfortunately reminding some in the audience of the Opium War. Cameron's trip netted a $1.2 bn. contract for British engine-maker Rolls Royce. It was a far cry from the $14 bn. in deals agreed when China's President Hu Jintao called on President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris last week. (One supposes the Sarkozy's 2008 meeting with the Dalai Lama has been forgiven.)
China-Japan relations remain abysmal. The ongoing saga over the September collision between a Chinese fishing boat and two Japanese patrol boats off the Senkaku islands took a turn for the even-worse when footage was leaked of the incident last week.
United States President Barack Obama landed on Wednesday night after pledging support for an Indian seat on the United Nations Security Council. Obama and his host, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, immediately failed to reach a free trade agreement, an early blow against the anti-protectionist spirit Lee had hoped to engender at the summit.
The enduring US-China war of words over renminbi devaluation threatened to overwhelm all other discussions, and US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner earlier in the week annoyed China, Japan and Germany by suggesting they restrain their trade surpluses.
Skip to tonight. At the conclusion of the summit, leaders accentuated the positive. Lee described the meeting as “unexpectedly successful”. Obama praised the consensus: “The twenty major economies are in broad agreement.”
Meanwhile, invited non-members Bingu wa Mutharika (Malawian President and African Union Chair) and Meles Zenawi (Ethiopian Prime Minister and Chairman of the New Partnership for Africa's Development, the AU's economic development program) left quietly. Development issues, which Lee had hoped would receive a major push from the G-20, had been shunted aside.
Our full coverage of the G-20 summit will appear in AAC Vol 4 No 1, out next week.