World leaders kicked off one of their most high-stakes G20 meetings in years on Friday, with rows brewing over a bruising US-China trade war, geopolitical tensions, and climate change even if US President Donald Trump was offering a more conciliatory tone.
After lashing out at friend and foe alike en route to Osaka in western Japan for the meeting, Trump appeared in a less combative mood when meeting fellow world leaders face-to-face.
Fresh from describing traditionally close US ally Germany as “delinquent” for not paying enough into the NATO budget, he was effusive when meeting Chancellor Angela Merkel.
“She’s a fantastic person, a fantastic woman and I’m glad to have her as a friend,” he said.
Merkel appeared well during the talks, a day after a second public shaking attack raised fears about her health. German officials insist she is not ill.
Likewise, Trump hailed his host, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, for sending “many automobile companies” to the United States, apparently pleased by a document Abe gave him showing investment into the US.
Only two days earlier, he had seemed to call into question the US-Japan alliance, saying that Washington was committed to protecting Japan but if America was attacked, the Japanese could just “watch it on a Sony television.”
Despite the warm words in public, the meeting is shaping up to be one of the most fractious in years, with clashes possible over trade, Iran, and climate change.
The most eagerly anticipated part of the meeting will be on Saturday when Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping hold their first face-to-face since the last G20, to thrash out a truce in a long-running trade war that has stymied the world economy.
Experts believe there is little chance of a full deal immediately, saying the best hope is for a truce that would avoid Washington imposing new tariffs and ramping up the conflict.
But even a truce is not guaranteed, with the Wall Street Journal reporting Thursday that Beijing will not agree to any deal unless Washington lifts its ban on Chinese telecoms firm Huawei.
Before arriving, Trump said China wanted a ceasefire because its economy was “going down the tubes”, appearing to also threaten another $325 billion in levies in addition to the $200 billion Washington has already imposed.
After Xi held a meeting with counterparts from Egypt, South Africa, and Senegal, Dai Bing, an official from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said “all leaders stressed that… bullying practices are on the rise.”
Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who dined with Trump Thursday, said the dispute would “take a lot to work through.”
“I walked away with the view that this is going to be tough because there are some very serious issues that they’re trying to resolve,” he told Australia’s Channel 7 Sunrise programme.
Trade will be far from the only contentious issue on the table, with climate change emerging as another sticking point.
Host Japan is hoping to bridge the gaps between European leaders who want strong action and an American administration committed to withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement.
French President Emmanuel Macron has said he wants strong wording in support of climate change action but Washington is unlikely to back any statement endorsing the Paris deal.
With Macron insisting the issue is a “red line”, Japanese officials concede agreement will be tough.
“The work to consolidate various opinions is expected to be difficult,” a Japanese official admitted to reporters on Thursday.
Macron has also he would not sign a major trade deal between the EU and Latin American countries that some hope might be reached at the G20 if Brazil withdraws from the Paris agreement.
Looming over the talks will also be continuing tensions in the Middle East. Trump said before heading to Japan that any war with Iran “wouldn’t last long.”
That assessment is unlikely to find favour among G20 leaders, with Macron warning on Thursday: “there are no short wars.”
When a war begins, he said, “we know when it starts, but rarely when it will end.”