BUENOS AIRES, Dec 2. A Sino-US showdown on trade loomed Saturday as G20 leaders wrapped up tense summit talks with a rare show of unity over the death of former president George Bush.
There was an implicit contrast in some of the tributes offered at the Buenos Aires summit between Bush and the current White House occupant, Donald Trump, whose disruptive brand of diplomacy has stoked the deepest divisions in the G20’s 10-year history.
“He was a world leader, who strongly supported the alliance with Europe,” said French President Emmanuel Macron, who has been lobbying other G20 leaders to carve out a 19 v 1 statement on climate change excluding Trump.
British Prime Minister Theresa May lauded the late Bush as “a great statesman and a true friend of our country,” words that few observers in Britain would apply to Trump.
Trump himself said Bush had “inspired generations of his fellow Americans to public service.”
There was no immediate comment in Buenos Aires from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who regards the breakup of the Soviet Union under Bush’s presidency as a historical “tragedy.”
Bush also served as US envoy to China in the 1970s as the countries were establishing relations. Chinese President Xi Jinping was also yet to comment, as he prepared to dine with Trump later Saturday for a large helping of debate on trade tariffs.
With markets watching nervously, Trump has described the Xi encounter as a deadline for China to meet his demands or risk even further pressure.
The summit itself has been struggling to carve out any accord on climate change or countering trade protectionism, while hot-button disputes surrounding Ukraine and Saudi Arabia loom large.
Trump, who has already slapped $250 billion in tariffs on China and threatened more to come next month, sounded upbeat about making progress with Xi.
“We’re working very hard. If we could make a deal, that would be good,” Trump told reporters Friday as he met Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the G20.
“I think they want to, and I think we’d like to. And we’ll see,” the president said.
Trump has thrown out the traditional US playbook on free trade since his shock 2016 election, vowing to protect forgotten workers and put “America First.”
Xi has in turn cast himself as a defender of stable global capitalism, a startling transformation for the leader of a communist state whose entry into the World Trade Organization less than two decades ago was controversial.
In a speech to fellow G20 leaders, Xi said that the major economies “should firmly uphold free trade and the rules-based multilateral trading system.” But in a rhetorical olive branch to Trump, Xi pledged to do more to open up China’s economy.
“China will continue to deepen market-oriented reform, protect property rights and intellectual property rights, encourage fair competition and do more to expand imports,” he said.
– Walking away happy? –
Trump has accused China of rampant theft of US technology and demanded that the emerging power end its requirements that foreign companies team up with local partners.
The state-run China Daily said that the Pacific powers could strike a deal in Buenos Aires but warned the United States against pushing too hard on technology.
“Should there be any other aspirations, such as taking advantage of the trade spat to throttle Chinese growth, then an agreement is unlikely to be reached,” the newspaper said in an editorial Friday.
“But a good deal means both sides walking away happy. The US should give its habitual winner-take-all approach to international relations the weekend off,” it said.
Trump counted a victory Friday for his brash strategy as the United States, Canada and Mexico signed a new trade deal, a successor to the North American Free Trade Agreement.
While short of the complete rewrite of NAFTA once promised by Trump, he hailed the new United States-Mexico-Canada-Agreement as an “incredible milestone.”
– Russia probe –
A substantive deal between the United States and China could mark a major feat for the G20 summit, where expectations for collective action have been low.
With Trump feuding with close US allies, not least on climate change, two major summits this year ended without once-routine statements — those of the Group of Seven democracies and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.
Trump has decided to pull the United States from the Paris accord on curbing carbon emissions, despite mounting warnings from scientists leading up to a UN climate summit starting next week in Poland.
Trump called off talks with Putin at the G20 summit, officially due to outrage over Moscow’s naval skirmishes with Ukraine.
But Trump is also under mounting pressure at home in an investigation over whether his presidential campaign colluded with Russia — a topic sure to dominate his press conference shortly before he sits down with Xi.