Just a month after a state visit to Japan, U.S. President Donald Trump this week heads to the East Asian country again.
In Osaka, Trump will attend the Group of 20 leaders’ summit, during which he is scheduled to meet one-on-one on the sidelines with such fellow world leaders as Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“The president is quite comfortable his position going into the meeting” with Xi following the breakdown of U.S.-China trade talks and increased tariffs on Beijing by Washington, a senior administration official told reporters on Monday.
U.S. officials say there is no fixed agenda for Trump’s meeting with Putin although they acknowledge issues involving Iran, Ukraine, the Middle East and Venezuela are almost certain to be discussed.
Casting a pall over the G-20 discussions will be nervousness about the deteriorating situation between Washington and Tehran. Leaders in both capitals have been reiterating they want to avoid war but have also repeatedly stated they will not hesitate to defend their interests if provoked.
Economic pressure on Iran
Trump is to reiterate to his fellow leaders at the G-20 that the United States intends to continue to increase economic pressure on Iran, which finds itself under escalating U.S. sanctions, and eliminate all of the country’s petroleum exports.
“I don’t think Iran is a distraction,” according to James Jay Carafano, vice president of the Heritage Foundation’s national security and foreign policy institute. “I think that’s under control. Trump should strive for a no drama G-20.”
The G-20 itself no longer has the significance it did after the group’s first several summits late in the previous decade when it cooperated to avert a meltdown of the global economy.
Trump prefers bilateral discussions and agreements over multinational events. Administration officials, however, are attempting to counter the notion that they no longer see these types of meetings as vital, pointing to U.S. leadership on advancing 21st century economic issues
“We believe that G-20 economies need to work together to advance open, fair and market-based digital policies, including the free flow of data,” a senior administration told reporters Monday on a conference call, also stressing promotion of women’s economic empowerment.
Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and a White House adviser, is to give a keynote address on the latter topic at a G-20 side event in Osaka.
G-20 host Shinzo Abe, as prime minister of Japan, and many European participants are trying to maintain the international system and its principles.
“This is where the absence of the U.S. is really harming it,” says Heather Conley, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and director of its Europe program. “We’re seeing the slow death of multilateralism in many respects. It’s a death by a thousand cuts.”
While the U.S. pulls back from such groups, the world is witnessing “the Chinese using international organizations so effectively to shape agendas,” Conley, a former deputy assistant secretary of state, said.
Some analysts expect the Trump-Xi meeting in Osaka to be a repeat of their previous dinner last year in Buenos Aires, when the two leaders agreed to trade talks and tasked their trade ministers with reaching a deal within 90 days.
“I think that that is the most likely outcome, that they’re going to reach some sort of accommodation, a truce like that and push this forward,” predicts Matthew Goodman, a CSIS senior vice president and senior adviser for Asian economics.
“It’s not going to solve the immediate problems,” contends Goodman, who previously served as director for international economics on the National Security Council staff, helping then-President Barack Obama prepare for G-20 and G-8 summits. “Even if we get a deal, it’s unlikely to solve some of the deep structural differences between us in the role of the state in the economy, the governance of technology and data.”
Much attention will also be on the Trump-Putin encounter.
“Whenever President Trump and President Putin meet there is a very strong (U.S.) domestic backlash after that meeting,” notes Conley. “In part, it’s because there’s a total lack of transparency about the topics of discussion and what the agenda is, and I think the president would have a better policy approach domestically if, again, there was clarity of what the agenda would be, that there would be people participating in that meeting – secretary of state, national security adviser and others.”
Trump is also scheduled to hold talks in Osaka with leaders from Australia, Germany, India, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
From Japan, Trump flies to Seoul, where he will be hosted by South Korean President Moon Jae-in to discuss how to further ease tensions with North Korea.
White House officials brush off speculation Trump could meet on the Korean peninsula with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, which would be their third encounter after summits in Singapore and Hanoi. And U.S. officials are not commenting on a possible presidential visit to the Demilitarized Zone, which separates the two Koreas.
There is little pressure on Trump to make any breakthroughs during his visit to Japan and South Korea, according to Carafano.
“I think the U.S. in the driver’s seat with regards to both North Korea and China negotiations,” Carafano tells VOA. “If they come to the table now, fine. If not, fine. Trump can wait until after the 2020 election.”