Trade wars — and the prospect of actual war — will dominate President Donald Trump’s agenda as he touches down here in Osaka, Japan, Thursday for a highly consequential meeting of world leaders.
It’s a sign of Trump’s continued capacity to mold the world agenda that this year’s G20 summit represents a confluence of global crises that are all, to some measure, manufactured by him.
Markets are poised to react to the outcome of Trump’s long-awaited trade talks with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping. A tense situation in the Middle East grows ever more so as Trump plans to huddle with peers from Russia, Saudi Arabia and Germany. And stalled diplomacy with North Korea will be tested as South Korean officials say they are preparing for the President to visit the Demilitarized Zone.
All are matters unlikely to be brought to easy resolution when Trump meets with his fellow global leaders in Japan.
Air Force One touched down at the Osaka International Airport around 5:40 a.m. ET (6:40 p.m. local) after a roughly 15-hour journey from Washington.
Trump’s most closely watched meeting comes Saturday when he sits for talks with Xi. US officials said there has been little indication over the past weeks that China is willing to cede to American demands they reform their economy, leaving questions about possible results for the meeting.
The White House has declined to provide specific parameters for the meeting, saying only that Trump is hoping to touch base with Xi. But privately, US officials have Trump is eager to come to some type of accord as he nears his 2020 reelection contest, which will hinge on the strength of the US economy.
“It’s really just an opportunity for the President to maintain his engagement, as he has, very closely with his Chinese counterpart,” a senior US administration official said this week in previewing the talks. “Even as trade frictions persist, he’s got the opportunity to see where the Chinese side is since the talks last left off. But again, the President is quite comfortable with any outcome.”
However comfortable Trump may be waging trade battles, the global economy is decidedly less so. The US-China trade dispute has affected supply chains and caused global growth to slow. Whatever comes of the Saturday morning session between Trump and Xi appears certain to affect markets.
The officials said a likelier outcome of the talks is a truce of sorts that will avoid new tariffs while establishing a timeline for renewed talks.
Aides who discussed the trade negotiations did so with extreme caution, indicating that the outcome was almost entirely dependent on Trump’s decision-making.
In recent weeks, US officials said there was still internal opposition on the Chinese side over US demands for reform. These people, who are close to the discussions, said Trump and Xi would need to essentially re-establish the progress they made before talks broke down in Washington in May.
But officials were hopeful that agreements could be outlined at the finance or deputy ministerial level beforehand. It’s unclear how much progress those preliminary talks have made.
In a sign that officials aren’t optimistic a trade deal will happen soon, two of Mnuchin’s top officials left the department in recent weeks. Eli Miller, his chief of staff, announced his departure in April. Tony Sayegh, the assistant secretary for public affairs, ended his tenure last week.
Trump brought along a full contingent of trade advisers with him to Osaka, including those who represent both hardline and more conciliatory views. Seen boarding Air Force One was Peter Navarro, the China hawk who has advocated for tariffs. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, often on the other side of the debate, is expected to meet Trump in Japan. Others on the trip include US Trade Rep. Robert Lighthizer and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.
Ahead of the talks, aides said they expected new tariffs could be delayed, though none are viewing that outcome with 100% certainty. In preliminary talks between the US and China over the past weeks, the Chinese side made clear that delaying a new round of tariffs on $300 billion in Chinese goods would be necessary for Xi to agree to a meeting, people familiar with the matter said.
Political fights back home
Trump arrived in Japan as his nearly two-dozen potential Democratic rivals spar in their first set of televised debates, an occasion Trump said this week he would watch himself, however begrudgingly.
The man he views as his most formidable challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, will square off Thursday evening in Miami as Trump is waking Friday morning in Osaka, leaving some of the President’s aides wondering how he’ll respond. He has hinted he’ll tweet.
En route to Japan, Trump dispatched a series of tweets from Air Force One chiding Biden for a crime bill he supported in the 1990s. But he referred his followers to aides for real-time reaction to the debate.
“Sorry, I’m on Air Force One, off to save the Free World!” he wrote — a framing of his trip that aides have said is meant to project a presidential standing as his potential rivals squabble.
Later, as he greeted US troops during a refueling stop in Alaska, Trump predicted the Democrats were “all going to do very poorly.”
No longer the new kid
Now on his third G20 summit, Trump arrives to this western Japanese city more confident than his initial outings to the leaders’ confabs that comprise a president’s calendar. No longer is Trump the new kid or an oddity his foreign counterparts are desperately trying to figure out.
Of the 20 other world leaders attending this week’s summit, eight took office after Trump.
Aides say the President has grown more comfortable in summit settings than when he attended his first one — a G7 held at a cliffside resort in Sicily — three months after his term began. At that gathering he felt the odd man out as other leaders worked to press on him their opinions on climate change and trade.
Now, Trump is more likely to vocally push back when he feels his perspective is being overlooked or discarded, people familiar with his views of the summits say. Having developed relationships of varying strengths with other world leaders, Trump is more able to draw on the personal connections that underpin his entire approach to foreign diplomacy.
Trump still does not entirely relish large gatherings of other leaders, much preferring the type of foreign travel he partook in earlier this spring when he was feted by royalty during state visits to Tokyo and London.
And stops at the usual circuit of conferences are never a given for his staff. He skipped last year’s Asian summits which US presidents typically attend. Aides have only recently determined he will likely attend this year’s G7, held in coastal France.
Those gatherings of the world’s major economies have become central in efforts to develop unified approaches to thorny issues that are fueling anxiety worldwide.
Middle East tensions
Trump’s conversations on Iran could have similarly wide-reaching consequences. Tensions have escalated both in the Middle East and among US allies, who view the latest provocations as a result of Trump’s decision to withdraw from a multi-country nuclear accord more than a year ago.
In Japan, Trump will consult on the matter with the powerful Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has been implicated in the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Despite calls to apply new sanctions on the ruler, Trump has signaled he’s ready to move on.
And he’ll discuss the situation with Russian President Vladimir Putin, another closely watched meeting between the two men and their first face-to-face session since the completion of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election meddling.
Trump declined to tell reporters at the White House as he was departing whether he would raise election meddling with Putin.
“I’ll have a very good conversation with him,” Trump said. “What I say to him is none of your business.”