Trump’s Cancelled Meetings With Multiple World Leaders Have Little to do With The Sea of Azov

Prior to notifying the Russian government about any change of plans, Donald Trump took to Twitter to announce the cancellation of his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the ongoing G20 summit in Argentina. The official excuse provided by Trump was concerns regarding the ongoing crisis in the Sea of Azov that saw Russian authorities impound three Ukrainian vessels after they breached Russian territorial waters in what the Ukrainian sailors later confessed was a calculated provocation.

And yet while Trump’s cancelled meeting with Putin has made international headlines due to the ongoing so-called Russiagate scandal in the United States, of equal importance are Trump’s cancelled meetings with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and South Korea President Moon Jae-in. First of all, the relationships that the US has in 2018 with Russia, Turkey and South Korea could hardly be more varied.

Turkey is a NATO partner but one with whom the US has multiple disputes ranging from the US battlefield alliance with the Syrian branch of the PKK terror group (the YPG) to concerted efforts by anti-Turkish lobby groups in the US to stop the full delivery of F-35 jets to Turkey. Additionally, Washington and Ankara have substantial disagreements over Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 defensive weapons and sustained differences over how to approach Saudi Arabia after Riyadh admitted being complicit in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Given the importance of solving these disputes, one would have thought that an Erdogan-Trump meeting would have been prioritised, but instead Trump will likely only speak briefly with Erdogan in a manner that stops well short of a full scale private sit-down meeting.

In respect of South Korea, it cannot be said that the US has any significant disputes with its long standing allies in Seoul, even though it is now abundantly clear that South Korea would prefer the US to drop sanctions against the DPRK (North Korea) sooner rather than later. In the context of the Korean peace process, a meeting between Trump and President Moon would be very important but just as is the case with Erdogan, Trump has decided to skip a formal meeting with Moon.

With Russia, relations are more obviously strained while every time Trump meets with Putin the US mainstream media have a collective fit of hysteria. The added pressure from anti-Russian hawks in Washington may also have played a part in forcing the cancellation of the Putin meeting in light of the incident in the Sea of Azov. But that being said, while most anti-Russian and pro-Russian media outlets are focusing uniformly on the cancellation of the Trump-Putin sit-down, this cancellation is no more or less relevant than the others and therefore should not be taken out of context.

The wider context of course is that Trump’s visit to the G20 has a clear and rather singular purpose: to sit down with Chinese President Xi Jinping and either relax the trade war or threaten an escalation of the trade war in front of the deeply serious Chinese leader. While few can agree on which approach Trump will take with China when he sits down with Xi in Argentina, this meeting was always going to be the one most central to Trump’s attendance of the G20. The importance of Trump’s meeting with Xi was only heightened by the fact that Trump conspicuously decided not to attend the recent APEC summit in Papua New Guinea, opting instead to send Vice President Pence to deliver a speech rife with Sinophobia.

Beyond this, while the Korean peace process, disputes with Turkey and bewildering relations with Russia are all long running issues with the US, Trump has made it so that the trade war with China is a far more immediate issue in terms not only of its origins but in terms of the emphasis Trump has placed on his anti-Chinese/anti-free trade drive. The recent announcement by General Motors that four US factories will close, taking thousands of jobs with them has only heightened the importance of the trade war, even though Trump perplexingly offered a recent series of Tweets in which he implied that tariffs are still a good thing even though the General Motors factory closures appear to be deeply related to the trade war’s negative effect on the US economy.

In an ideal world, Trump would in fact sit down with Xi and realise that as China’s economy is more open for imports than at any time in modern Chinese history, it would behove the US President not to allow the trade war to keep much sought after US goods out of the Chinese market place. That being said, it remains anyone’s guess as to what approach Trump will take but it is the objective reality that the Xi meeting was always going to be more of a priority for the US President than any other meetings.

There are therefore several distinct possibilities which point to the reasons why Trump cancelled the other prominent meetings with Putin, Erdogan and Moon.

First of all, for a man who famously seeks to develop a strong personal bond with a fellow leader before getting down to business, perhaps there was simply not enough time at the two day G20 summit to fit in what Trump would consider substantial enough meetings with multiple world leaders and still have time to attend the various plenary sessions of the summit. Therefore, he may have decided to retain the meeting whose importance was the most immediate while postponing the others for a later date. This explanation is not only plausible but it is also one that is deeply rational. The trouble with this explanation however is that it beggars belief that the meetings were officially scheduled before Trump or one of his staffers realised that such a schedule was too logistically ambitious.

Another possible explanation is that while Trump clearly has something he wants to say or even do about the trade war, he has fewer immediate plans to alter the status quo with Russia, Turkey or South Korea. In respect of Turkey, US policy makers remain divided between pragmatists who tend to favour the historic American partnership with Turkey while on the other side of the divide, more fanatical elements have been swayed by the Israel lobby to largely discard Turkey’s position and continue to pursue policies which threaten Turkey’s security (fighting beside the YPG/PKK) as well as policies which insult Turkey’s sovereignty (the F-35 delay and unwarranted criticism over the S-400 deal).

In respect of South Korea, as the peace process continues to advance more in spite of than because of the United States, perhaps Trump is wiling to let things be until it becomes viable to hold a more dramatic summit that might see Trump meet with President Moon and Chairman Kim Jong-un of the DPRK at the same time as part of a “mother of all made for television summits”.

Finally, any chance of the US and Russia agreeing on anything meaningful beyond each country’s alliance with Israel prior to the end of the Robert Mueller investigation into alleged collusion between Trump and Russia, is simply fanciful. The domestic political situation in the US means that Trump and Putin are simply “not allowed” to agree on de-escalation until a would-be second Trump term. Thus, a mutual commitment to Israel represents a lone exception which helps to prove the rule in respect of Russia-US relations. This was the case long before the current issues arose in the Sea of Azov. Indeed, the incident in the Sea of Azov may well have been coordinated by pro-Kiev factions in the US or Europe as a means of providing Trump with an easy excuse for cancelling his meeting with Putin.

Therefore, while the cancellation of the Putin-Trump meeting in the aftermath of the skirmish in the Sea of Azov makes for dramatic headline making, the more mundane reality is that Trump’s trip to Argentina was always going to be about Chinese trade issues with everything else being an afterthought. As the matters that the US needs to discuss with Turkey, Russia and South Korea are deeply important issues, in one sense Presidents Moon, Erdogan and Putin should be counter-intuitively thankful that Trump has decided that no formal meeting is better than an incomplete one.

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