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, set for Saturday. 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. He arrives 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.
Chief among them is the boiling US-China trade war, which has only deteriorated since the two sides walked away from negotiations last month. Trump will meet Xi for the first time since December to discuss the situation, and has held out the chance he’ll apply even more tariffs on top of the duties he’s already slapped on Chinese goods in the talks do not end well.
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.
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.