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The Great, but not always Good, of the G20 are once again gathered in stately conclave – this year in Buenos Aires.  Does it matter?  Yes. Between them the participants represent about 75% of global international trade.

It matters because of what it is they will disagree about, as well as what they agree on. This is not always at the level of all 20 participants, it is mostly at the bi-lateral level, but the summit gives them all a forum for a series of meetings – a sort of ‘speed dating for diplomats’.

This year the major issue is probably the China/USA trade row and this matters not just to all 20 members – but the whole world. A full-scale trade war between the world’s two biggest economies has still not broken out. An agreement this weekend will keep the threat at bay even if the long term is likely to be dominated by competition between the two powers.  Disagreement brings it closer.

The Americans have been playing rough in the run up to the summit. Earlier this month Vice President Mike Pence mocked President Xi’s key foreign policy initiative – the ‘Belt and Road’ programme saying the United States economic policy did not go in for “constricting belts or a one-way road.”

His boss, President Trump, is in a strong position. The trade tariff blows the two countries have been trading hurt Beijing more than Washington. The Chinese economy is more dependent on the United States than the other way around especially as the U.S. economy is currently growing. What Trump wants are guarantees that China will buy a lot more American goods, and allow more American companies to set up in China not as junior partners in a joint venture, but as majority shareholders. If he doesn’t get at least some gains then he may follow through on his threat to impose another set of tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods in January.

Either way the American president will be busy even if he doesn’t also meet with President Putin. The talks were on, then off, then on and as Mr T set off for South America they were off again. Given the new ‘Russia Gate’ news from last night this might not be a good time for him to be seen cosying up to Putin. That of course would not be the official reason for not seeing him. Given the Russia/Ukraine crisis which heated up this week in the Sea of Azov  he can join his EU counterparts in showing displeasure at Moscow’s actions.

Other things to look out for include if the final communique fails to endorse the Paris Climate Agreement, and who wants to be seen with the Saudi Arabian crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, in the aftermath of the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. For example, will Turkey’s president Erdogan be seen shaking him warmly by the hand?

UK PM Theresa May is unlikely to do so, but she will be keen to shake hands on as many business deals she can propose ahead of selling her EU Brexit deal to the UK parliament in mid-December.

It’s all connected – and that’s what the G20 is for.

NB – The G20 countries are Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, UK, US, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, China, India, Mexico, Indonesia, Russia,  Turkey, Saudi Arabia  South Africa  and South Korea. If you counted 19 – you’re right, the EU makes up the list. The host country can invite countries to attend and this year Argentina invited Chile and the Netherlands.


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