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China's G20 Leadership with the United Nations

Professor John Kirton
G20 Research Group, University of Toronto
August 23, 2016

Paper prepared for an international workshop on "Making Global Governance More Effective and Inclusive: The G20 and The United Nations," hosted by the School of International Relations and Public Affairs of the Shanghai International Studies University (SISU), the Center for G20 Studies of SISU, and the G20 Research Group of the University of Toronto, Canada; co-hosted by the UN Association of China and the Shanghai UN Research Association; and sponsored by the Lowy Institute for International Policy of Australia and the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs' Asian Institute, Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History, East Asian Studies Program, David Chu Asia-Pacific Program, and the Department of Political Science, held at SISU, Shanghai, China, on August 25-26, 2016.


The Group of Twenty (G20) systemically significant states was created in 1999 with two distinctive missions that endure to this day (Kirton 2013). The first was promoting financial stability, a task which made the Bretton Woods bodies of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank Group full, integral members of the G20 from the very start. The second was making globalization work for the benefit of all, a task central to the United Nations which was completely left out of this new key global governance group (Kirton 2015).

Since then the G20 has moved from ignorance of the UN's potential contribution to its work, through involvement in important UN components, to the integral influence of the UN for the G20's Hangzhou Summit on September 4-5, 2016. China's leadership in the G20 has been critical in giving the UN this increasingly influential place, as the G20 has mobilized the UN's resources to accomplish their shared and growing global governance goals (Kirton 2016). Yet there is still much to do, to make the G20 work for the UN, the broader multilateral system and the global community as a whole.

Phase 1: Ignorance, 1999-2008

The first phase of the G20-UN relationship, from 1999 to 2008, was defined by the G20's ignorance of what the UN could contribute to the G20's work.

The G20 was created at the finance ministers' level in 1999, due to the Asian-turned-global financial crisis from 1997 to 2002. China leapt to the leaders level in 2008, due to the much greater American-turned-global financial crisis in 2008. With the initial and repeated focus on finance issues, on securing financial stability and on providing financial stimulus and support to restore economic growth and development, the IMF and World Bank from 1944 were chosen and continued as core members. The UN from 1945, thought to have limited economic capabilities and a primary focus on security, was not chosen despite the formidable development capacity, dedication and institutions it possessed.

China and its fellow Asian countries brought to the G20 in 1999 a deep distrust of the IMF prescriptions for solving the Asian financial crisis. China did put development as its priority G20 issue from the start. Yet it focused on reforming the IMF to give emerging countries greater voice and vote and helped secure the first stage of such reform when it hosted the G20 ministerial meeting outside Beijing on October 15-16, 2005. It also focused on reforming and raising resources for the World Bank. Only in 2006 did China embrace the UN's broader sustainable development agenda, by signaling support for the need to control climate change.

Phase 2: Involvement, 2008-2015

The second phase of the G20-UN relationship, from 2008 to 2015, was dominated by the increasing involvement of the UN's issues, insights and representatives in the G20's summit and system-level work.

In 2008, the G20 was quickly chosen by U.S. president George W. Bush as the body to respond at the summit level to the American-turned-global financial crisis that erupted in full force with the collapse of US investment bank Lehman Brothers in New York on September 15. Competing concepts to hold such a summit at the UN or even have it designed and chaired by the UN were readily dismissed.

With the central focus on financial stability at the first G20 summit, held in Washington DC on November 14-15, 2008, there remained little room for the UN's views, even if the UN Secretary General was invited and came (Kirton 2015).

The same was largely true at the second summit, held in London on April 1-2, 2009, even if the UN secretary general was invited and came (Kirton 2015). Here fiscal, monetary and financial stimulus was the centrepiece, even if sustainable development and climate change now made it into the communiqué.

At the G20's third summit, in Pittsburgh in September 2009, host US president Barack Obama invited the head of the International Labour Organization to attend. At the fourth summit, held in Toronto in June 2010, Canada's host Prime Minister Stephen Harper, invited UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, even if the invitation came at a late stage and Ban Ki-moon's focus on climate change was not welcomed by the host.

Since the fifth summit, held in Seoul in November 2010, the UN and its development issues increasingly became mainstream (see Appendix A). A new peak was reached at the G20's St. Petersburg Summit in September 2013. Here leaders devoted their opening dinner to the high security subject of removing chemical weapons from Syria and helped get a successful solution very soon after, a deadlocked UN Security Council (UNSC) which had failed. At the Brisbane Summit in November 2014, the health emergency of Ebola and the response by the World Health Organization (WHO) suddenly took a major place. At the Antalya Summit in 2015, migration, terrorism and energy did so, with the last two issues highlighting how the UN galaxy lacked functional organizations dedicated to meeting these global needs.

China supported the UN's increasing involvement, especially on development. It did so on all issues save Syria, which it wanted to leave to the UNSC where, as a veto member of the more exclusive Permanent Five, it has a much more privileged and influential place.

Phase 3: Integral Influence, 2016

However, when China acquired the responsibilities and rights of hosting, chairing and designing the G20 summit, to be held in Hangzhou on September 4-5, 2016, it started the third phase, defined by the UN's integral influence in the G20.

This exalted place for the UN was seen from the very start when President Xi Jinping first announced his approach to and priorities for the Hangzhou Summit (see Appendix B). It was evident in May 2016 when his foreign minister presented the ten major anticipated deliverables for the summit. The UN's 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development took second place. The industrialization of Africa' and the least development countries, and the ratification of the UN's Paris Agreement on climate change were also on the list.

Phase 4: Possibilities from Hangzhou to Hamburg, 2016-17

Yet when the G20 leaders themselves assemble at Hangzhou, there is much more they can do to give the UN greater influence, so that critical global problems can be solved. One is to protect the world's oceans, in part by supporting and reforming the work of the International Maritime Organization and the Secretariat of the UN Convention on Biodiversity. A second is securing global health, in the face of new outbreak epidemics such as Zika and the compounding burden of chronic non-communicable diseases, by giving WHO and regional and sub-regional international health organizations the resources they need. The third is to create the missing global energy organization and global environmental organization with both centrally dedicated to controlling climate change, and to bringing President Xi's vision of an "ecological civilization" to life for the whole world.


Kirton, John (2016), China's G20 Leadership (Abingdon: Routledge)

Kirton, John (2015), "The United Nations, Global Economic Governance and the G20," Lecture delivered at the University of Leuven, Belgium, December 10, 2015.

Kirton, John (2013), G20 Governance for a Globalized World (Farnham: Ashgate).

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Appendix A: G20 Development of Global Governance Outside

2008 Washington






Los Cabos

2013 St. Petersburg




Total 39 120 115 164 237 251 142 246 42 62 1,418
International financial institutions 4 2 1 9 5 1 0 1 1 1 25
International Monetary Fund 11 36 35 35 31 45 22 32 11 9 267
World Bank 5 8 13 16 25 9 15 24 3 4 122
Multilateral development banks 2 8 6 15 17 9 3 1 2 2 65
Bretton Woods institutions 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 2
Financial Stability Forum 8 6 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 14
World Trade Organization 2 2 4 3 9 11 9 34 4 4 82
United Nations 2 3 9 7 33 51 16 16 3 9 149
Financial sector assessment program 1 3 0 3 2 0 0 0 0 0 9
Financial Action Task Force 1 4 2 2 3 5 4 6 0 5 32
OECD 1 2 5 7 20 15 16 47 9 12 134
Financial Stability Board 0 19 10 25 24 33 20 19 3 5 158
Global Forum 0 3 2 2 3 9 3 16 0 0 38
G8 0 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 2
International Labour Organization 0 1 6 5 6 6 3 7 1 2 37
BCBS 0 6 0 11 5 2 0 1 0 0 25
CGFS 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1
Bank for International Settlements 0 1 0 0 1 4 2 2 0 1 11
IASB 0 1 1 2 2 2 0 1 0 0 9
IOSCO 0 3 2 1 5 11 4 6 0 0 32
Debt Sustainability Framework 0 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 2
Asian Development Bank 0 1 0 1 0 1 0 1 0 0 4
Inter American Development Bank 0 1 1 4 1 0 0 0 0 0 7
African Development Bank 0 1 1 2 1 0 0 1 0 0 6
EBRD 0 1 0 1 0 0 0 1 0 0 3

Notes: OECD = Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development; BCBS = Basel Committee for Banking Supervision; CGFS = Committee on the Global Financial System; IASB = International Accounting Standards Board; IOSCO = International Organization of Security Commissions; EBRD = European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.
Compiled by Julia Kulik, November 30, 2015.

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Appendix B: Direct References to United Nations Bodies in China's G20 2016 Document

Total References by UN Body (9):
3  United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
2  2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development/Summit
2  United Nations
1  Food and Agriculture Organization
1  International Labour Organization

Text of References to UN Bodies
1. "Advancing the Doha Development Agenda to achieve development-oriented outcomes and contributing to the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development."

2. "The UN Sustainable Development Summit has endorsed the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, calling for all countries to make joint efforts in eradicating poverty, promoting the coordinated development in economy, society and environment, narrowing the gap between the North and South, so as to achieve the shared development for all."

3. "According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, world's food production needs to be increased by 60% from 2005 to 2050 to meet the global food demand."

4. "As parties to the UNFCCC, G20 members should follow the principles and rules of the UNFCCC, take active measures to implement the outcomes of the COP21 on climate financing and others, and provide dynamic political impetus to the continuing discussions under the framework of the UNFCCC on how to meet the demands of developing countries in climate financing."

5. "China also expects continued contributions from international organizations, including the UN, IMF, World Bank, WTO, FSB, ILO and OECD."

6. China will promote dialogues between the G20 and other international/regional organizations like the UN, Group of 77 and APEC, and will take the opportunities of international meetings to share ideas and to brief them on progress in the G20 agenda, such as the World Economic Forum in Davos and the Boao Forum for Asia."

Unit of analysis is the word, formal title or acronym
Includes UN specialized agencies such as the FAO, ILO
Excludes 2030 Agenda/COP21 if no reference to UN

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