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Can trade threats be turned to truce? Trump meets Xi and Merkel

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BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — President Donald Trump neared the end of an attenuated visit to the Group of 20 summit here Saturday.

null play Can Trade Threats Be Turned to Truce? Trump Meets Xi and Merkel (NY Times)

“We have a tremendous trade imbalance, but we’re going to get that straightened out,” Trump said before a meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany. “We all understand each other.”

Merkel said the two leaders would also discuss Ukraine, where a clash between Russian and Ukrainian ships last week caused tensions to flare between the two neighbors. It was cited by Trump as the reason he canceled a meeting with President Vladimir Putin at the meeting in Buenos Aires.

Later Saturday, Trump began a dinner meeting with President Xi Jinping of China to discuss ways to avoid a new round of tariffs that some analysts fear could provoke a full-fledged economic Cold War between the world’s two largest economies.

“The relationship is very special, the relationship that I have with President Xi,” Trump told reporters, as he sat across a long table from the Chinese leader. “I think that is going to be a very primary reason why we’ll probably end up with getting something that will be good for China and good for the United States.”

Xi replied, “Only with cooperation between us can we serve the interest of world peace and prosperity.”

China is seeking to prevent Trump from following through on a plan to raise tariffs on $250 billion in Chinese goods to 25 percent, from 10 percent, on Jan. 1. In return, U.S. officials said, the Chinese were likely to offer to increase their purchases of U.S. soybeans and natural gas.

Neither a dramatic breakthrough nor an acrimonious breakdown was expected at the dinner. The most likely outcome, officials said, was an agreement to keep talking — a truce not unlike the one that Trump agreed to recently with the European Union.

Trump’s focus on trade with Germany has put Merkel in an awkward spot because Germany, as a member of the European Union, cannot negotiate separately on trade issues with the United States.

Still, Trump was a less disruptive presence at this meeting than he has been at other such gatherings. The members agreed on a 31-point communiqué that endorsed multilateral agreements like the Paris climate accord, while acknowledging the U.S. insistence that it go its own way.

The communiqué referred to the Paris climate agreement as “irreversible” and committed its signatories to implement it fully. Underscoring U.S. isolation on the issue, the communiqué added a line referring to Washington’s announced exit from the deal.

“The United States reiterates its decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, and affirms its strong commitment to economic growth and energy access and security, utilizing all energy sources and technologies, while protecting the environment,” the communiqué said.

“All countries except the U.S. backed conclusions reaffirming the Paris Agreement and its full implementation,” Laurence Tubiana, the former French climate negotiator and now head of the European Climate Foundation, said in a statement.

The statement also expressed concern about the World Trade Organization, a favorite target of Trump because he believes it crimps America’s ability to use tariffs and allows countries like China to cheat.

“The system is currently falling short of its objectives, and there is room for improvement,” the communiqué said, in a phrase that an administration official described as a victory for Trump.

The statement also did not include a reference to the dangers of protectionism, which U.S. officials said could have held it up. Two weeks ago, a feud over language on trade between China and the United States stymied the drafting of a communiqué after an economic summit in Papua New Guinea — and it was never issued.

Trump said he canceled a news conference planned for Saturday afternoon out of deference to the family of President George H.W. Bush, who died a day earlier in Houston.

“The fact that we lost a president who truly was a wonderful person, a wonderful man, a great man — it really puts a damper on it, to be honest with you,” Trump said.

He turned to Merkel and asked her to share a recollection of a visit she made to the White House with then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl, when Bush was president. She referred to him as “one of the fathers of the German unification,” and said, “we will never forget that.”

Even before Bush’s death, the meeting was shadowed by Trump’s legal troubles back home — his former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about his dealings with Russia on behalf of Trump — and by his truncated schedule while in Buenos Aires.

This was the kind of diplomatic conclave at which Bush, a globe-trotting foreign-policy president, would have thrived. Trump’s less comfortable experience here attested to how the American role in the world has changed during the Trump presidency.

Trump also skipped a meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, another strongman whom he has drawn close but who has fallen into disrepute. The CIA has concluded the crown prince played a role in the killing of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October.

Trump’s stubborn defense of Crown Prince Mohammed has caused tensions with Turkey, which has shared an audio recording of the attack on Khashoggi with U.S. officials and demanded a fuller accounting from the Saudis of what happened.

On Saturday, Trump met with Turkey’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but the White House closed the session to even the brief picture-taking opportunity that usually accompanies these meetings.

At a dinner for the leaders Friday night, the White House said Trump spoke informally with Putin. There were photos of the president and first lady Melania Trump seated at the long table, separated from Putin by Xi and his wife, Peng Liyuan.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Mark Landler © 2018 The New York Times

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