The annual summit might seem like a snooze-fest to those who don’t care to follow economic news, but this year’s G20 Summit, kicking off on Friday in Buenos Aires, Argentina, is sure to have more drama than a bipartisan family Thanksgiving dinner.
With 19 world leaders (plus the European Union) present, there will be much talk of Brexit as the E.U. figures out how trade will be affected following the impending withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the E.U., and tensions are expected to run high.
President Donald Trump is expected to cozy up to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman while no doubt talking tough to European, Asian, and North American allies about steel tariffs. He will also likely continue to threaten to sanction anyone trading with Iran.
Expect to hear more of what you heard from the president at the United Nations General Assembly in September — that the United States is moving away from multilateralism, and that, under his administration, it’s (you guessed it) America First.
Against this backdrop — plus anti-G20 protests — here are the key issues to follow:
China’s trade war
President Trump’s trade war with China really isn’t going well for anyone, least of all Americans.
China was a major market for U.S. agricultural products, such as soybean, corn, cotton, pork, and wheat, but with the tariffs President Trump slapped on China in an effort to lower the trade deficit, that market has dried up.
The deficits have been increasing since the start of Trump’s trade war (currently at historic highs), and farmers have been watching their crops rotting in their fields, some running out of storage space and being forced to bury their products back under soil.
The Trump administration has thus far paid around $900 million of the $4.7 billion in subsidies it has approved to help the farmers, which many farmers have said is not enough. Those subsidies could increase to $12 billion.
Plus, the bailouts seem to be going to people who are hardly linked to the farms. For instance, The Washington Post reported that city-dwellers, many of whom are loosely connected to the farms in which they own some interest, have so far received $1 million in subsidies.
U.S. manufacturing has also been hit hard, hitting a six-month low in October.
China’s economic trade growth has also slowed, but there’s little indication that the country is willing to change the behavior that has proved advantageous to it in trade, but triggered President Trump’s ire. Trump has threatened even more tariffs on Chinese goods in the new year.
The White House has indicated that President Trump is open to reaching a some kind of deal when he meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Saturday.
There is some doubt over whether President Trump will bring up China’s intensified crackdown on Muslim Uighur minority group. For months now, China has been rounding up Uighurs, locking them up in “camps” where rights groups have documented torture, starvation, and a number of deaths.
Russia: Flexing for the optics
The past week has seen Russia flex its muscles in unsettling ways. On Sunday, it rammed its ships and opened fire on Ukrainian ships that were trying to cross the passage between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. Russia also seized the naval ships.
U.S. response has been muted, with outgoing U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley on Monday calling Russian actions an “outrageous violation of sovereign Ukrainian territory,” and the State Department issuing a short statement of condemnation.
The Kremlin confirmed on Thursday that President Trump will have a bilateral meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the summit. But as he was traveling to Argentina later that same day, President Trump announced that he was canceling the meeting owing to Russian action against Ukraine (certainly not recent revelations about his attempts to do business in Russia as he campaigned for the presidency):
Based on the fact that the ships and sailors have not been returned to Ukraine from Russia, I have decided it would be best for all parties concerned to cancel my previously scheduled meeting….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 29, 2018
On Friday morning, however, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said a brief impromptu meeting between the two leaders will be happening.
Putin on Wednesday said the movement of the Ukrainian vessels was a “provocation,” and is sending missile batteries to Crimea, where it has installations on the land it illegally annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
He has also been making great claims about new, advanced nuclear weapons and continuing to make inroads in its energy gambit, most notably bidding to build nuclear reactors in Saudi Arabia.
Putin will certainly have a to-do list: The drop in oil prices has meant that “Russia has gone from being comfortable to being very concerned, but not destitute,” said William Pomeranz, director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies of the Woodrow Wilson Center.
But raising oil prices will mean talking to Saudi Arabia, which has increased production to lower prices.
Russia will also no doubt be talking to Germany and maybe other European Union countries about the construction of Nordstream 2 gas pipeline, which would see its natural gas pumped into Europe, competing with the U.S. for the market.
Pomeranz told ThinkProgress that “Russia just wants to be perceived as a major power….So, done and done.”
Whether Putin is greeted with open arms or ganged up on will all be used “to influence domestic public opinion,” he said. In other words, Putin is not there to make friends. In fact, he will go there knowing there has been no major pushback to Russian aggression against Ukraine.
“What Putin has shown is that facts on the ground trump — no pun intended — international law,” said Pomeranz.
Ukraine was within its rights to send ships through the joint waters, but with the bridge that Russia has built to Crimea, Russia is controlling those waters, limiting Ukraine access to its own ports. While Russia has been criticized for doing so, it hasn’t really been challenged.
The general feeling, he said, from Russia’s perspective, is that since it has been kicked out of the G8 (now, the G7), “The G20 is the most global organization that it belongs to, with the exception of the [U.N.] Security Council.”
“And you have to remember, when Putin went to the G20 in Australia, just after [backing pro-Russian separatists in] Ukraine, no one talked to him and he left a day early,” said Pomeranz, of the summit in 2014.
“I guarantee you there will be plenty of people at the G20 in Buenos Aires who will be happy to talk to him,” he added.
Saudi Arabia tests the waters
There is a lot happening here.
Even for a kingdom accustomed to some pretty bad PR (the country forces women to live under guardianship laws, beheads prisoners with alacrity, and locks up and torturing activists), recent months have made Saudi Arabia somehow look even worse.
Having continued to bomb civilian targets in Yemen — including a school bus filled with children, in broad daylight — Saudi Arabia is also being blamed for using starvation as a tool of war. In siding with the government against Houthi rebels, the Saudi-led coalition has intensified its operation at the port of Hodeidah, at times cutting off food and medical supplies to large swaths of the country.
Save the Children recently released a report that used U.N. figures to (conservatively) estimate that between April 2015 and October 2018, roughly 85,000 children have starved to death in Yemen.
Host country Argentina is also considering pursing war crimes charges against Saudi Arabia. A writ presented by Human Rights Watch urges courts there to invoke the universal jurisdiction statute and hold Saudi Arabia accountable for civilian deaths in Yemen.
Furthermore, evidence is mounting that the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, almost certainly ordered the gruesome murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Reports of his killing and dismemberment at the hands of a Saudi kill team in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul have horrified the world, and caught the Gulf kingdom’s lobbying machine on the back foot.
Turkey, which has its own political motivations (including being a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, viewed as a terrorist group by Saudi Arabia and defended by Khashoggi) has been all too happy to turn evidence over to the CIA, which determined last week that MBS almost certainly ordered Khashoggi’s murder. But CIA Director Gina Haspel does not appear to be among those giving testimony on those findings before the U.S. Senate on Wednesday.
The Republican-controlled senate voted 63-37 to end U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s campaign in Yemen, even if the the House were to pass a similar bill in short order (highly unlikely) the White House has already threatened to veto it.
President Trump has shrugged off that report, maintaining that he believes MBS’s denials. And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrote an Op-ed for The Wall Street Journal Wednesday emphasizing the value of Saudi Arabia as a partner, notably, as a counter to Iranian muscle in the region.
Still, Trump might be MBS’s only real friend there. While Iran isn’t part of the G-20, Turkey is, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is sure to throw some black-eyed looks across the hall at MBS, on whom he is squarely placing the blame for Khashoggi’s murder on Turkish soil.
Mexico dealing with U.S. mess
Let’s start with the positives: The United States, Mexico, and Canada might finally get to sign a new North American free trade agreement, known as the USMCA (RIP, NAFTA).
Lawmakers in the all three countries still need to sign off on the agreement before it can go into affect.
A more pressing matter for Mexico, though, is what is happening at its U.S. border, where thousands of Central American migrants are stuck.
The Trump administration, which is still trying to build a wall at the border, wants to keep as many of the asylum-seekers out of the U.S. as possible.
A transit route for tens of thousands of Hondurans, Salvadorans, and Colombians, Mexico has been trying to cope with caravans large and small winding through its towns and cities, only to have the U.S. all but seal its borders, processing applications at a very slow pace.
Insisting that they have to wait their turn in Mexico (rather than enter the U.S., apply, and wait for their status to be determined in the U.S., as is permitted under federal law), the Trump administration is essentially shifting the burden onto Mexico’s economically suffering border towns.
As such, tensions have been building as communities strain to accommodate tired, impatient, and in some cases, angry migrants. Tensions escalated to a boiling point over the weekend as a group of migrants — unarmed, and including women and children — marched to the border, some of them trying to climb the walls. U.S. border security responded with a volley of tear gas, and Mexican authorities have deported the migrants they say were involved in the incident.
The incoming administration of President Manuel Lopez Obrador (who is taking office on Saturday) will be tasked with hammering out a possible agreement with the Trump administration.
This piece was updated to include news on Friday that Kremlin spokesman Smitry Peskov said Trump and Putin will hold an impromptu meeting at the summit.