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The G20 summit is going to test Trump’s foreign policy

In Japan, the president will be meeting face to face with global leaders on issues from trade to Iran.

President Donald Trump steps off the Air Force One plane holding an umbrella over his head.
President Donald Trump arrives in Osaka, Japan, on June 27, 2019, at the start of the G20 summit.
Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

Before President Donald Trump even landed in Osaka, Japan, for the G20 summit this week, he was already venting about America’s allies, threatening to rip up treaties, and generally being weird on Twitter.

So ... a typical Trump foreign trip.

As usual, Trump’s harshest stances tended to be reserved for America’s partners. He assailed a Japanese defense treaty before departing for Osaka and ahead of his meeting with Prime Minister Abe Shinzo; he lambasted India’s trade policy ahead of his sit-down with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi; and he accused Germany of shirking its defense commitments before talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

When it came to what Trump might talk about with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the president told reporters: “none of your business.”

The G20 summit comes at a particularly critical time, as the US-China trade spat drags on and tensions with Iran are at a fever pitch. In the coming days, Trump will have intense discussions with foreign leaders — allies and adversaries alike — who have direct stakes in these escalating trade and security disputes.

Which means Trump will be tested on the world stage once again during the G20. Here’s what to expect from one of his most consequential foreign trips.

Trump has already met with the Australian prime minister — but the big meetings begin Friday

“Sorry, I’m on Air Force One, off to save the Free World!” Trump wrote Wednesday night in what was a particularly eye-roll-inducing tweet given that mitigating the fallout from Trump’s protectionist trade policies and his maximum pressure campaign against Iran are among the top priorities of the G20.

Trump eased into his trip with a working dinner with newly elected center-right Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Thursday evening local time. Morrison, who became leader last summer during a party coup, was previously the architect of Australia’s controversial “turnback” immigration policy, in which boats full of asylum seekers trying to reach the country’s shores were turned back.

So it’s probably not surprising that Trump enthusiastically endorsed Australia’s immigration policies ahead of his sit-down with Morrison, writing on Twitter that “much can be learned” from the country’s policy approach.

In comments at the working dinner, Trump congratulated Morrison on his election victory. He also defended his “America First” policy when a reporter asked whether he realized it has had adverse effects on allies like Australia and Japan. Trump responded that “we do look at ourselves,” but “we also look at our allies.”

“And I think Australia is a good example,” Trump continued. “We’ve worked together very closely — just recently, on a big trade situation. We had a little bit of a trade deal going, and it worked out very well for both of us.”

It hasn’t, actually — a fact Morrison made that clear when he urged both the US and China to settle their trade dispute, saying that “collateral damage is spreading” and that the “global trading system is under real pressure.” (Australia is also reportedly leading trade negotiations for a regional trade pact that would sideline the US.)

But Trump’s working dinner with Morrison will probably be one of the smoother one-on-one sessions of this G20 summit.

Trump will kick off Day 2 of the G20 in meetings with Japan and India

Trump is scheduled to meet with Japanese Prime Minister Abe on Friday morning local time— just two days after the president questioned the post-World War II defense treaty between the two countries during a Fox Business interview.

“If Japan is attacked, we will fight World War III,” Trump said on Wednesday. “We will go in and protect them with our lives and with our treasure. “We will fight at all costs, right? But if we are attacked, Japan doesn’t have to help us at all.”

“They can watch on a Sony television the attack,” he added. “So, there’s a little difference, okay?”

Besides the ridiculous Sony comment, Trump’s talking about a defense alliance that helped shape the post-World War II world order and bolsters America’s influence in the region. This is also likely an irritant to Abe, who’s tried very hard to flatter and placate Trump to avoid just these kinds of international dustups.

Trump and Abe will then meet with Indian Prime Minister Modi, before Trump has a one-on-one meeting with the Indian leader.

Trump also attacked India’s trade policy ahead of the G20, writing on Twitter that he looks forward to speaking to Modi about “the fact that India, for years having put very high Tariffs against the United States, just recently increased the Tariffs even further. This is unacceptable and the Tariffs must be withdrawn!”

Of course, the US-India trade dispute is a bit more complicated than Trump makes it out to be in his tweet. India imposed additional tariffs on US goods in retaliation for the US rescinding India’s preferential trade status earlier this month. India had previously placed tariffs on the US after the Trump administration refused to exempt it from steel and aluminum tariffs.

This dispute with India is a bit less dramatic than the one with China, but it’s another front in Trump’s protectionist trade war that’s likely to also cause some stress for US farmers and businesses. As Roll Call points out, India, like China, buys a lot of US agricultural products, too — for example, India the world’s biggest importer of US almonds.

It’s also yet another example of trade wars being hard, and not exactly easy to win, despite Trump’s claims to the contrary.

Iran will likely be on the agenda with Germany and Russia

Also on Friday, Trump will meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, one of America’s closest allies who’s also a frequent target of Trump attacks.

Trump has already taken aim at Germany ahead of this trip, accusing it of freeloading on security.

For her part, Merkel is likely to urge Trump to use restraint when it comes to Iran and to back off from the escalating standoff. Germany, along with the United Kingdom and France, is a signatory of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, and they’ve been desperately trying to defuse the tensions and somehow keep the agreement intact.

Iran is also pressuring European countries to intercede, and is getting dangerously close to breaching the terms of the 2015 deal in an attempt to force the EU to do more to ease the economic pressure campaign on Tehran.

Russia, which is also a signatory to the 2015 deal, may also try to ease tensions between the US and Iran. Trump will follow up his meeting with Merkel with a one-hour meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has previously warned that a US attack on Iran — a Russian ally — would be “catastrophic.”

When a reporter asked Trump Wednesday what he and Putin would discuss, Trump told a reporter, “It’s none of your business.” Last year, when Trump met with Putin in Helsinki, the US president refused to call out Russia for its interference in the 2016 election. With the 2020 campaign gearing up, many Americans are hoping Trump will make it clear to Putin that such meddling won’t be tolerated this time around — but somehow, that seems unlikely to happen.

Trump will finish up his meetings on Friday with a like-minded leader: Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Trump hosted Bolsonaro at the White House in March, where they lavished praise on each other and both attacked “fake news.”

The two are likely to discuss the ongoing crisis in Venezuela, where Brazil has joined the US in backing opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the interim president.

Oddly enough, Bolsonaro almost eclipsed Trump when it came to generating G20 controversy after a Brazilian crewman in Bolsonaro’s advance team got busted with about 86 pounds cocaine on a stopover in Spain.

Trump finishes off his G20 trip with three very critical meetings. First up: MBS.

On Saturday, Trump will hold three high-stakes meetings with three authoritarian leaders: Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (or MBS, as he’s often called in Washington), Chinese President Xi Jinping, and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Trump will have breakfast with MBS, just a week after a United Nations investigation found there was “credible evidence” linking the crown prince to the murder of Saudi dissident journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi consulate in Istanbul last fall.

President Trump and his administration have repeatedly rebuffed allegations of MBS’s personal involvement and sought deeper ties with Saudi Arabia, particularly in the wake of the Iran crisis.

And Iran will definitely be on the agenda. Saudi Arabia largely backs the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran, but it’s also at risk as tensions mount, as any US military conflict with Iran would almost certainly put Saudi Arabia in Iran’s crosshairs as well.

This meeting also comes at an awkward time, as Congress is currently attempting to block a controversial arms sale to the Kingdom.

Xi and Trump will talk trade. Will anything happen with the US-China standoff?

After MBS comes perhaps the headlining G20 sit-down, between Trump and Chinese President Xi.

This is the one everyone’s been waiting for, after Trump increased tariffs on China after trade talks broke down in April.

The Wall Street Journal reports that China might have a counteroffer for Trump that includes lifting a ban on the sale of US technology to the Chinese tech giant Huawei; ending punishing tariffs; and dropping demands that China buy more US goods.

This is a pretty big ask by China — and it’s not clear whether Trump will go for it. The US has been leading a campaign to pressure allies to stop using Huawei technology, which it believes poses a national security threat by giving China a potential way to spy on other countries, and because it gives a Chinese company a huge economic edge. As for tariffs, Trump thinks they’re an effective leveraging tool in any deal.

Trump economic adviser Larry Kudlow said in an interview with Fox News that Trump was even prepared to increase tariffs if the meeting didn’t go well, which may dampen any hopes of US-China trade breakthrough.

The US and China weren’t expected to agree to any formal deal at the G20, but there was hope the two could jumpstart trade talks in earnest once again. Now it seems there’s a risk that Trump and Xi could leave the G20 summit without having made any progress at all.

That could be politically precarious for Trump as he heads into 2020. As Vox’s Alex Ward explains, China is quickly becoming a major campaign issue. Trump’s supporters still largely back his tough stance against China, but the economic pressure of this trade war isn’t sustainable indefinitely.

That may also prompt Trump to take a deal, maybe even offering China concessions on Huawei or tariffs, just so he can declare victory in the fall.

A final meeting with Erdoğan illustrates what’s at stake at this G20

Trump’s final meeting is a sit-down with Turkish President Erdoğan. Erdoğan just experienced a major setback at home, after an opposition candidate decisively beat an Erdoğan ally in the Istanbul mayoral election.

This defeat at home may make Erdoğan eager to flex his power abroad — and there’s a current issue in US-Turkish relations that Erdoğan could use to get the distraction he very likely wants.

Turkey wants to buy a billion-dollar missile defense system from Russia, known as the S-400, which Turkey says it needs for defense. But since Turkey is a member of NATO (and thus a US military ally), buying weapons systems from Russia is kind of a big no-no.

If Erdogan goes ahead with the purchase, it will trigger US sanctions and other measures, potentially including blocking the country from receiving US-made F-35 fighter jets.

Erdoğan is looking to use the G20 to resolve this issue, and is pushing the US Congress to exempt Turkey from sanctions. “I believe my meeting with US President Trump during the G20 summit will be important for eliminating the deadlock in our bilateral relations and strengthening our cooperation,” Erdogan said in an interview Thursday, according to Al-Monitor. “I believe we will resolve the S-400 issue in line with our alliance and strategic partnership.”

Erdoğan doesn’t want to back down in the wake of US pressure, but he is also extremely wary of additional sanctions. Turkey’s economy is really struggling, and any sanctions would likely make the crisis much worse. Still, a resolution doesn’t seem all that likely, which means Trump may leave Osaka with an even more strained relationship with Turkey.

But the meeting with Erdoğan underscores just how serious some of the bilateral sit-downs in the G20 are this weekend. Trump will be dealing with several major geopolitical issues, and the results of these meetings could shift the course of the president’s foreign policy just as the 2020 presidential race is kicking off.

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