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Putin, Xi Set to Test ‘America First’ Trump at G-20

Coons says president should ‘end the tariffs’ during dinner with Chinese leader

President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin arrive for a joint press conference after their summit last month in Helsinki, Finland. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin arrive for a joint press conference after their summit last month in Helsinki, Finland. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Donald Trump takes his “America first” presidency to Argentina on Thursday for a high-stakes G-20 summit, but lawmakers and experts warn his go-it-alone approach could hamstring his own goals on China, Russia and North Korea.

Trump is expected to pose for the usual “family photo” with the other world leaders gathered in Buenos Aires. There will be one-on-one meetings with allies such as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in as Trump looks to build a unified front against North Korea. And there will be face-to-face talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been much more critical than Trump of Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman after Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

The self-described “nationalist” president’s latest foray into global diplomacy will feature a double main event: A dinner with Chinese President Xi Jinping during which the conversational entree will be a nasty trade dispute, and a second one-on-one meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin that will capture the attention of the world following a July summit that brought bipartisan scorn over Trump’s seeming deference to the former KGB spymaster.

But don’t expect the president to emerge from his dinner with Xi or his private chat with Putin and announce a trade pact or that Russia has agreed to cool its aggressive actions in Ukraine or Syria.

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“The last summits have been somewhat disappointing and marked by contention, particularly over trade-related issues. And I would expect that to be the case again,” said Matthew Goodman, who oversaw Asia-Pacific economic issues for the Obama White House.

“The Trump administration’s view of multilateralism and of these sorts of institutions … from the start has been a very skeptical view,” he said. “I think [that] has made it harder … to get progress in these forums. The fact is that the United States is engaged and does walk into the room in these forums and put forward an agenda and proposals and initiatives and incentives for advancing the agenda. Then, useful, constructive things over time can get done. If the U.S. does not do that, these forums flounder.”

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Trying and error

Trump — and especially officials in his administration — have tried traditional diplomatic strategies. For instance, the administration has attempted — mostly unsuccessfully — to build a unified front on trade matters with the European Union to force change from China. But those efforts are often undermined by other Trump-ordered moves that are straight out of the “America first” playbook, experts and Democratic members say.

“These multilateral frameworks [are] where we really see in very stark ways that the ‘America first’ policy … is very much a self-isolating policy in a multilateral framework,” said Heather Conley, a former State Department official in the George W. Bush administration.

“This just presents enormous challenges as the U.S. government seeks to move further on its objectives — whether that’s North Korea, whether that’s Iran, whether that’s a variety of issues,” she said. “So I think you’re seeing both the interpersonal one-on-one dynamic, but then there is that multilateral framework.”

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Trump relishes the one-on-one dynamics with other world leaders. But so far, the deal-making talents he and his aides so often tout have not broken impasses on trade with China and the EU, nor have they thawed relations with Russia or convinced Putin to play nicer with his neighbors.

Notably, his chief economic and national security advisers on Tuesday came to the White House briefing room and tried to lower expectations for the much-anticipated dinner with Xi.

“I want to just mention what the president told us a short while ago and that is, in his view, there’s a good possibility that a deal can be made and that he is open to that,” said Lawrence Kudlow, the director of the National Economic Council. Missing was any Trump-ian guarantee that the deal-maker in chief would leave the dinner and inform the press he had cleared everything up with Xi.

A few minutes later, White House national security adviser John Bolton said the president will sit down at the table with Xi “not with the expectation that, at this meeting, there’ll be some substantial agreement coming out of it.”

Rather, the goal is “that there would be an indication, a kind of way ahead that the advisors could then pursue,” Bolton said.

Deal or no deal

Still, some Democratic lawmakers want Trump — even if deals aren’t likely — to make clear to Xi that he is willing to try to create an environment under which reaching an agreement might be more feasible.

“President Trump is right to have zeroed in on China’s unfair trade practices, but a trade war with China isn’t good for the world’s economy over the long term, and it’s not good for the U.S. economy either,” said Delaware Sen. Chris Coons, who serves on the Foreign Relations Committee .

“The G-20 summit in Argentina provides the United States with an invaluable opportunity to end the tariffs and begin a real negotiation to change the way the world trades with China,” he added.

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But messages from the opposition party ahead of the summit have been mixed.

For instance, other Democrats, such as Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York, urged Trump this week to let Xi know he is serious about keeping existing sanctions in place and possibly imposing new ones.

“Backing off on China for some quick handshake agreement, without substantive, real, deep commitments will be seen as a victory by no one,” Schumer said Wednesday. “It will be seen as capitulation. It will be seen as weak.”

Kudlow, during a Tuesday morning session with a small group of reporters, signaled that the president’s message with Xi will resemble Schumer’s stance.

“You bet he means it,” Kudlow said of his boss’s intention to force China to play by international rules on trade. “I hope they understand that. I’m not sure they do.”

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