Side issues loom over G20 summit as world leaders arrive in Buenos Aires

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Side issues loom over G20 summit as world leaders arrive in Buenos Aires

Donald Trump injected fresh drama into the meeting when he cancelled a planned meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.


President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump walk from Air Force One (Martin Mejia/AP)
President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump walk from Air Force One (Martin Mejia/AP)

World leaders have arrived in the Argentine capital for the G20 summit of the globe’s largest economies as issues such as a trade war between the United States and China and the conflict over Ukraine threatened to overshadow the gathering.

The two-day summit beginning on Friday is supposed to focus on development, infrastructure and food security, but those seemed largely an afterthought amid soured US-European relations and as the United States, Mexico and Canada hammered out the final language of a replacement for the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta).

Michael Shifter, head of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank, said that this G-20 summit was once considered an opportunity for Latin American members Argentina, Brazil and Mexico “to project a regional bloc to shape a global agenda.”

But, he said, “that turned out to be a fleeting aspiration”.

“The fact that the G20 is taking place in South America for the first time is almost beside the point,” Mr Shifter said.

“Argentine president Mauricio Macri, the summit’s host, has lowered expectations. … Now a success would be a summit meeting that goes smoothly, without any major disruption.”

Nonetheless, French president Emmanuel Macron, who flew into Buenos Aires on Wednesday, clung to the importance of the ideal of cooperation that the G20 represents.

“I believe in our capacity to make the spirit of dialogue and cooperation triumph,” Mr Macron said at a joint news conference with Mr Macri, warning that if nations “close down”, the alternative could be trade wars or armed conflict.

Mr Macron also called for international involvement and “complete clarity” in investigations into the killing of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and said European leaders should discuss it at a meeting Friday.

Mr Macri said the matter of the killing would be “on the table” during bilateral and possibly broader meetings.

Saudia Arabia has denied that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman played a role in Mr Khashoggi’s killing.

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But Human Rights Watch accuses him of responsibility and also of war crimes in Yemen, and on Wednesday, Argentine legal authorities took initial action to consider a request to prosecute him for alleged crimes against humanity.

It is to be the crown prince’s first significant appearance overseas since the killing.

Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been sharply critical of Saudi Arabia over the incident, is also in attendance.

“Willis Sparks, director of global macro politics at Eurasia Group, said: “Just to see how leaders interact with the crown prince will be interesting — how warm they are. I expect (US president Donald) Trump to be very warm with him, but European leaders probably are going to be very reluctant to have their pictures taken with him.”

An expected high-profile bilateral meeting between Mr Trump and Russia’s Vladimir Putin planned for Saturday was abruptly cancelled by Mr Trump, who made the announcement in a tweet citing Russia’s seizure of Ukrainian vessels over the weekend.

The Kremlin said it had not been notified and only learned about it from the tweet.

Russian news agencies quoted Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying the cancellation means that Mr Putin will have “a couple more hours” for “useful meetings” with G20 leaders.

Mr Trump was still scheduled to meet with Chinese president Xi Jinping, but analysts were not optimistic about prospects for a major breakthrough on the two countries’ trade disputes a month before US tariffs on Chinese goods are set to ramp up.

Shannon O’Neil, an expert on global trade at the Council on Foreign Relations, said she believes it “very likely” that the tariffs will take effect in January.

“I think this is an issue that Trump cares a lot about and is going to use when he campaigns for 2020,” Ms O’Neil said. “It used to be Mexico and Nafta, and now it’s going to be China.”

The US, Canada and Mexico are scheduled to sign the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement that is replacing the Nafta trade deal during a ceremony on Friday.

There had been speculation that Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau might not attend and send his foreign minister instead if Mr Trump does not lift steel and aluminium tariffs, but a Canadian broadcaster reported late on Thursday that he would be at the ceremony.

The foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, said the three countries were “very much on track” to sign on time.

“These agreements are massive, and a vast number of technical details need to be scrubbed and wrapped up,” she said.

“The fact that this is an agreement in three languages adds to the level of technical complexity, and it is on that level that we’re just being sure that all the i’s are dotted and all the t’s are crossed.”

The pact must still be approved by politicians in all three countries.

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President Donald Trump waves as he and first lady Melania Trump arrive to Ministro Pistarini international airport in Buenos Aires (Martin Mejia/AP)

Ms O’Neil said she anticipates that to be “quite smooth” in Mexico and Canada, but passage could be more complicated in the United States after midterm elections flipped the House of Representatives, meaning the next speaker could be Democratic Representative Nancy Pelosi.

“There are some … things in there that I think Democrats can support,” Ms O’Neil said. “But I can’t imagine having a new Nafta is going to be Pelosi’s first priority when she comes in, so I’d expect it to be drawn out.”

On Thursday, Mr Macron criticised protectionist stances by Mr Trump but said they have no plans for a one-on-one at the summit. The two have increasingly clashed in recent weeks on everything from Mr Trump’s nationalism to wine tariffs.

Mr Macron warned that Europe might not sign trade deals with the South American regional bloc Mercosur if Brazil’s incoming president, Jair Bolsonaro, pulls out of the Paris accord.

Taking the world stage at the G20 is a welcome relief for Mr Macron, who has faced mass protests at home over rising fuel taxes that are the biggest challenge yet to his presidency. But his party dominates parliament and neither faces re-election until 2022.

Other European leaders at the summit are facing domestic struggles of their own.

Theresa May is fighting for political survival as she tries to pull Britain out of the European Union.

Germany’s Angela Merkel is preparing to leave politics after announcing last month she would give up leadership of her party, a post she has held since 2000.

Meanwhile, Italy’s Giuseppe Conte heads a populist coalition that is clashing with the EU and suffers internal divisions.

Press Association

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