BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – The U.S.-China trade war, the Saudi crown prince’s first trip abroad since the brutal killing of a newspaper columnist and the Ukraine crisis will grab the world’s attention at this week’s G-20 summit.
None of those issues is on the agenda at the two-day meeting that was meant to focus on development, infrastructure and food security. But the gathering of leaders from the world’s top industrialized and emerging nations will be eclipsed by discussions and controversy on the sidelines.
“The G-20 summit features high drama on the turbulent global stage, with U.S. President Donald Trump, China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin playing leading roles,” said Michael Shifter, head of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank.
Here’s a look at the main issues during the two-day meeting that begins Friday:
U.S.-CHINA TRADE WAR
The global economy is at stake when Trump and Xi meet at a high-stakes dinner in Buenos Aires on Saturday. Can they reach a truce on a dispute that has rattled markets? Trump promises to impose new tariffs on imports from China if they don’t. Most analysts doubt they will reach any overarching deal this weekend that would settle the conflict for good. But if the two sides agree to a cease-fire, it could buy time for more substantive talks.
“Whether they shake hands and announce some kind of agreement, or whether they don’t, we don’t think that anything substantial is going to happen in the broader U.S.-China trade conflict,” Willis Sparks, director of global macro politics at Eurasia Group.
“It involves a lot more complex issues that are not going to be resolved over the course of a single dinner.”
PRINCE OR PARIAH?
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is at the summit in the wake of the gruesome slaying of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and allegations that he ordered the killing inside the country’s consulate in Turkey’s capital last month. Trump has given the prince a pass while citing exaggerated claims of Saudi military contracts and investments in the U.S., and Putin has not criticized Saudi Arabia or the prince either. But European and other leaders are likely to try to avoid a photo-op that could cause backlash at home by appearing to legitimize the man who U.S. intelligence agencies concluded ordered the killing.
Human Rights Watch has accused the crown prince of war crimes in Yemen and responsibility for Kashoggi’s killing, and Argentine legal authorities are considering a request to prosecute bin Salman for alleged crimes against humanity.
“A cloud of suspicion will loom over him as he tries to rebuild his shattered reputation at the G-20, and world leaders would do well to think twice before posing for pictures next to someone who may come under investigation for war crimes and torture,” Human Rights Watch said.
Trump canceled a meeting with Putin at the summit, citing Russia’s recent seizure of Ukrainian naval vessels and crews. Russia has said Ukraine didn’t have permission to pass between Russia’s mainland and the Crimean Peninsula, while Ukraine insists its vessels abided by maritime laws. Analysts say the question will be how much pressure will Trump and the EU put on Putin over the issue.
TOUGH TIMES FOR U.S.-EUROPE RELATIONS
Europe is on weak footing at this year’s G-20. France fears Trump will block or eclipse any progress at the summit, and President Emmanuel Macron’s main task will be making sure Europe’s voice is heard and doesn’t get diluted by internal divisions.
Trump recently lit into Macron over his suggestion that Europe build up its militaries because the continent can no longer depend on the U.S. Trump also criticized him over French tariffs on U.S. wine and even Macron’s approval ratings.
Trump also said British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit agreement “sounds like a great deal for the EU” that would make it more difficult for the U.K. to strike a trade deal with the U.S. The British pound fell in the wake of his comments, which were countered by May.
“The Europeans know that they need to get along for the greater good of the trade relations. But the relations between Trump and the European leaders that he’s going to see in Buenos Aires are really bad,” Sparks said. “The word that comes along to me when it comes to the relation between these leaders is: Icy.”
Mexico and Canada recently reached agreement with the Trump administration on a revamped version of the North American Free Trade Agreement, and the deal is expected to be signed during the G-20 summit, though it won’t take effect until approved by the countries’ legislatures.
“Maybe the one bright spot (at the summit) is the signing of the new NAFTA,” said Shannon O’Neil, an expert on global trade at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The renegotiations, however, left a bad taste among the partners, Shifter said.
While the three leaders are supposed to be at the signing ceremony, Sparks said the possibility remains that it could be left to less senior officials because Canada and Mexico are not happy Trump did not lift tariffs on steel and aluminum.
“What was supposed to be an event that would mark a turning point,” Sparks said, “is looking like lower down on the bill.
Even the host country of the summit has lowered expectations.
Pedro Villagra Delgado, Argentina’s lead organizer for the G-20, acknowledged last week that it might not be possible to reach a consensus on a final statement.
Patricio Navia, a political science professor at New York University, said there are “way too many ongoing conflicts” and potential sources of instability at a summit that will likely be “an echo chamber for the lack of coordination and cooperation” seen at other forums.
“It is unlikely that the G20 meeting will provide any guidance as to what will happen next,” Navia said. “In fact, the meeting will probably end up generating even more instability, precisely because there will be many confusing signals coming out of the meeting.”
Associated Press writers Angela Charlton and Peter Orsi contributed to this report.