This year’s G20 summit in Japan comes amid rising tensions in the Persian Gulf, a US-China trade war that is becoming more monolithic by the day, a Korean peace process that has been somewhat forgotten by the world’s chattering classes and an overall negative feeling that could be accidentally magnified by the fact that the Asian host-country of this year’s summit is one that is best described as a “Belt and Road sceptic”.
On the whole, the meeting between Donald Trump and Xi Jinping is without doubt going to be the most crucial event set to occur at the G20. This bilateral meeting will almost certainly be more important than any agreement between the G20 countries themselves.
Bceause of this, one will likely be severely disappointed if one expects a major trade war breakthrough during the coursed of Trump and Xi’s discussions. Instead, if a warm personal exchange between the two leaders is able to thaw the general atmosphere and if this thaw then leads to some pausing of hostilities in the trade war, this could represent a small but nevertheless important step in the right direction. As such, if the US agrees to freeze the onset of new tariffs and/or agrees to delay or suspend some of the elements of America’s anti-Huawei embargo, this could be an important step in setting the stage for the full resumption of trade talks. The G20 will also be the first time that Xi and Trump will be able to discuss the tortured plight of Meng Wanzhou face-to-face and as such, it could help to de-escalate this unfortunate situation assuming the meeting goes smoothly.
If trade talks can be scheduled to resume after the bilateral meeting, it will likewise by crucial for Xi and Trump to take a much more hands on approach to the process than they did before. This can help to avoid the miscommunications and misunderstandings both within and between trade delegations that occurred during the last several rounds of discussions. A more personal approach to the trade talks between the two heads of state can likewise help to streamline the nature of the discussions whilst helping to create a direct and realistic atmosphere that for Donald Trump can best be achieved when dealing one-to-one with a respected foreign partner.
It cannot be underestimated that discussions about Korea can help break the ice between Trump and Xi. The Chinese head of state recently completed a successful visit to the DPRK whilst Kim Jong-un recently received a warm letter from Donald Trump that was touted in a highly positive manner by the DPRK’s official media. As such, a unique point of general agreement between China and the US on the Korean peace process (in spite of some specific differences) can help to establish an important discussion starter that can ease the leaders of the world’s biggest economies into an overall more relaxed discussion about very serious trading issues.
Whilst the topic of Iran will likely be discussed between the Presidents of Turkey, Russia and the United States, there is little chance that any country present at the G20 can influence Washington’s Iran policy at this particular point in time. But whilst the political theatre between Iran and the US continues to remind one of the 2017 war of words between Washington and Pyongyang that ultimately paved the way for historic de-escalation, the China-US trade issue is an all too real conflict.
Therefore, above all, Donald Trump and Xi Jinping must focus on having a frank and straightforward discussion about what realistically can be done to ease a trade war that business in neither country ever wanted. The ideal conclusion to the trade war as desired by the US and China remains something of a gap that cannot yet be bridged. But if important compromises are made in a spirit of economic realism and diplomatic pragmatism, the worst of the trade war can begin to be reversed or at minimum paused until lengthier discussions can be held.