OSAKA, Japan — President Trump and key foreign leaders are barreling toward a clash at the Group of 20 summit in Japan, as the U.S. president prepared to highlight his unhappiness about trade and European leaders promised to challenge him on climate change.
The annual meeting of the world’s economic powers marks one of Trump’s last chances to make gains on several of his foreign policy initiatives before the 2020 presidential campaign consumes U.S. politics. He is seeking to resolve an escalating trade fight with China while trying to build consensus for his administration’s tougher line against Iran — a view that has him at odds with some of the leaders he’ll meet with this week in Osaka, including Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The uncertainty surrounding denuclearization talks with North Korea also will be a significant backdrop for the two-day summit here, as the issue is sure to surface in Trump’s closely watched meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Saturday. He will leave for an overnight visit to Seoul later that day.
Trump touched down in this port city shortly after 6:40 p.m. on Thursday, hours after he antagonized some of the leaders whom he will meet with here by saying they are trying to take advantage of the United States on trade and questioning the benefit of the military alliance with host country Japan.
But as he often does, Trump took a much warmer tone once he met face-to-face with the leaders — even prompting a three-way fist bump with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the start of their meeting Friday.
Trump said conversations about trade will be “very positive” and pledged cooperation on that issue, among others.
He had taken a similarly conciliatory tone once he had arrived in Osaka the night before, when reporters pressed him about his “America First” perspective.
“Well, I think I can say very easily that we’ve been very good to our allies, we work with our allies, we take care of our allies,” Trump, flanked by senior aides and Cabinet officials, said at the beginning of his dinner with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. “We even help our allies militarily. So we do look at ourselves and we look at ourselves, I think, more positively than ever before, but we also look at our allies and I think Australia is a good example.”
But as the annual gathering began, some foreign leaders signaled that they would push back on Trump’s constant defiance of international agreements and consensus.
“The global stage cannot become an arena where the stronger will dictate the conditions to the weaker, where egoism dominates over solidarity and where nationalistic emotions will dominate over common sense,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said in a news conference Friday morning when asked about international cooperation and conflict, particularly pertaining to the widening problems between the United States and Iran.
Juncker and European Council President Donald Tusk called climate change an “existential threat” in a letter ahead of the summit and urged other countries to act. In the letter, they restated their commitment to the Paris climate accord from which Trump has taken steps to withdraw.
Trump has questioned the science supporting climate change, and his administration has sought to play down its significance in statements from international groups and meetings.
“We need to leave a healthier planet behind for those who follow,” Tusk and Juncker wrote. They signaled another looming showdown with Trump over climate change in a few months, saying they want to “send a strong message” ahead of the U.N. Climate Summit in September.
French President Emmanuel Macron said this week that he might not agree to a joint statement — or communique — at the end of the G-20 meetings if it does not include strong language addressing climate change. Macron said he considered not addressing this issue a “red line” for him during the G-20 in Japan.
Trump’s early meetings during his first full day at the summit will include leaders of nations he provoked before he left Washington over trade and defense spending. One of the sit-downs is scheduled with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a regular Trump foil who is unafraid to make veiled criticisms of his worldview.
He also is set to meet with Putin — marking their first in-person encounter since last July’s Helsinki summit during which Trump refused to endorse the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Moscow interfered in the 2016 presidential election. In Osaka, Trump is facing pressure domestically to confront Putin during their meeting and warn him against any future attempts at election interference.
Trump rode into Osaka in trademark Trump fashion — using the days and hours before his visit to ratchet up his rhetoric against allies, although he often levels attacks against world leaders ahead of global gatherings only to scale them back once he meets them in person.
One of Trump’s targets as he flew across the Pacific Ocean was India’s Modi, whose country imposed tariffs on nearly 30 products from the United States earlier this month as payback for Trump’s decision to revoke India’s preferential trade privileges. The retaliatory tariffs from India are just one of several trade disputes Trump will confront heading into this year’s G-20 summit.
“I look forward to speaking with Prime Minister Modi about the fact that India, for years having put very high Tariffs against the United States, just recently increased the Tariffs even further,” Trump tweeted. “This is unacceptable and the Tariffs must be withdrawn!”
Trump’s planned adversarial approach was clear in ways beyond his confrontational tweets and statements before he left Washington. He decided to add Peter Navarro, his hawkish trade adviser, to the U.S. delegation at the last minute, suggesting that he does not plan to offer many compromises during his time in Japan.
One of the most highly anticipated meetings of the G-20 will be Trump’s sit-down on Saturday with Xi. Trump has suggested that the meeting will be pivotal as he decides whether to further increase tariffs on an additional $300 billion in Chinese goods.
He is under pressure from some advisers and business executives to delay these new tariffs, but he has not said how he plans to proceed.
“It’s ripe for taxing, for putting tariffs on,” he said on Fox News Channel this week. He said he would impose “very substantial” tariffs if he does not cut a deal with China, and he signaled that he feels no pressure to back down.
At last year’s G-20 summit in Argentina, Trump and Xi agreed to start trade negotiations that were supposed to rewrite the economic relationship between the two countries, but those talks faltered more than a month ago. Trump then moved ahead with tariffs on $250 billion in Chinese imports and has threatened to impose the duties on the rest of China’s exports to the United States if Xi does not agree to major changes.
Among other things, Trump has said that China must stop stealing U.S. intellectual property, stop forcing U.S. companies to share technology and limit Chinese subsidies for domestic companies that disadvantage U.S. competitors. Trump also has insisted that China purchase more agricultural products from U.S. farmers.
Some White House aides have suggested that the president could use the Japan summit with Xi to reset talks and delay the imposition of new tariffs, but Trump has publicly been noncommittal.
Meanwhile, Trump took aim at NATO and at the U.S.-Japan military alliance in comments shortly before leaving Washington — remarks sure to dismay his hosts.
“If Japan is attacked, we will fight World War III . . . with our lives and with our treasure,” he told Fox Business on Wednesday, adding, “If we’re attacked, Japan doesn’t have to help us at all.” Japan, he said, “can watch it on the Sony television, okay, the attack.”
Japan hosted Trump for a lavish state visit last month, during which he called the alliance between the two countries “ironclad,” stronger than ever and only about to get stronger.
Tobias Harris, an expert on Japan at Teneo Intelligence, a political risk consultancy in Washington, said the Trump administration could be trying to get leverage over Japan in its ongoing trade talks and upcoming negotiations on sharing the costs of the U.S. military presence in Japan. But he argued that the comments did not represent a serious threat to the alliance and were therefore not particularly effective as leverage.
“While in theory the president has the power to withdraw from the alliance, in practice, doing so would require overcoming what I expect would be strenuous resistance from the U.S. military, national security establishment and Congress to an alliance that these actors all recognize as indispensable and good for the United States,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) chided Trump for picking fights with allies ahead of the meetings and urged him to focus instead on taking a tough stance with China on trade — a rare issue where the two men agree on an overall approach if not on every tactic.
“President Trump, you know it, we’ve talked about it: You have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reform China’s economic relations with the world and put American businesses and American workers on a level playing field,” he said on the Senate floor. “Stay tough. Do not give in.”
Schumer also said Trump should warn Putin against interfering in the 2020 U.S. election, citing the conclusions of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and the intelligence community that Moscow sought to surreptitiously influence the 2016 presidential contest.
“By directly challenging Putin, he will send a signal — not merely to Putin but to all of our adversaries — that interfering with our election is unacceptable, and that they will pay a price — a strong price — for trying,” he said.