As the G20 summit begins, the US-China trade war is dominating the news about it. Rumors are flying about what is expected from it; China may resume trade negotiations; the United States may temporarily suspend new tariffs from going into effect; President Xi may walk if President Trump brings up the Hong Kong protests.
Much of the story is occurring behind the scenes between the trade representatives of the respective nations. The meeting will be a chance to formalize what has already been agreed to. The only true questions about it are whether one side will not screw up their part in the public show, and what diplomatic gains and losses can be made during their summit.
The G20 is a meeting of 20 leaders of influential nations, however. Many of them will be pairing off at points throughout the summit, with the potential for some significant results. Some things to watch for from this year’s summit:
Japan’s Shinzo Abe will be meeting with Xi in an effort to increase goodwill and participation between their countries. Japan and China are regional foes, with a history that dates back centuries. Any indications of actual movement toward reconciliation will speak volumes about the state of U.S./Japan relations and the future of the region.
Abe will not be meeting with Moon Jae-In of South Korea, despite efforts to arrange one. In this case, the absence of a joint appearance is a story. The two allies are at a low point in their often-strained relationship. The United States, which has typically moved to restore the peace between those countries, is instead focusing on gaining trade benefits from both nations.
Another non-meeting of note is the one which Canada failed to arrange with China. Justin Trudeau is pushing for the release of some Canadians held by China following Canada’s arrest of a Huawei executive at the behest of the Trump administration. Trudeau has requested that Trump discuss the matter with Xi, and Trump has promised to do so. The Hong Kong protest warning calls into question whether Trump will be willing to raise the Canadian prisoner issue publicly, though.
While Trudeau did not secure a meeting with Xi, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro did; it will mark the first meeting between these two world leaders. Bolsonaro attacked China, Brazil’s largest trading partner, extensively both during his election campaign and in the first months after the election. In recent weeks, however, his tone toward China has become muted, almost docile. This meeting may present an opportunity by China to make headway into South American political influence. Watch especially for a softening by Jair on his rhetoric toward Chinese ally Venezuela, which has been conveniently “forgotten” by the Trump administration since their attempted revolution was quelled.
France’s Emmanuel Macron is expected to push for the G20 to make a strong statement about climate change, and is going to be discussing the matter with other leaders in his meetings with them. The inclusion, or lack thereof, of any such message will be a strong indicator of the power France retains within the EU and the influence the EU has upon international accords.
Lastly, even though the Trump/Xi meeting is drawing the immediate headlines, there is a meeting scheduled between Russia’s Putin and Trump on Sunday. After the Xi meeting headlines, the press will likely have a hard shift to stories about that pairing. This will be a chance for Trump to assert himself on the world stage against Putin’s election interference – not just in the U.S., but elsewhere (including Europe and Africa). It will also be an opportunity for Trump to publicly defer to Putin again, producing an even further weakening of the perception of America’s dominance in world affairs.