Trump, Merkel on G-20 Collision Course Over Climate, Trade

As police step up patrols and protesters set up camp in Hamburg, Germany, no one is expecting an easy weekend when U.S. President Donald Trump joins other heads of the world’s 20 leading economies.

Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are on a collision course on issues of climate and trade, but counterterrorism efforts, recent North Korean missile tests and Chinese steel dumping could bring them together.

Merkel pledges to work toward consensus on wider issues, but foresees no miracles in her relations with the U.S. administration.

“I do not think we will have unified positions on all issues at the end, but it is sensible and honest to talk to each other on all issues of international diplomacy,” Merkel told reporters ahead of the summit.

WATCH: Preview of G-20 meeting

President Trump said he has “bold” plans to impose steep tariffs or quotas on steel imports, the latest and perhaps most serious of threats to protect U.S. industry, and part of his America First strategy, one that has G-20 partners feeling nervous.

“What he is doing is he is throwing all kinds of cards up in the air — NAFTA, critique of climate change — because he actually wants a bit of a zero base policy,” said Tim Evans, a political economist at Middlesex University. “I think at the end of the day he probably, of course, wants free trade in the win-win sense, but what he is trying to expose is perhaps some of the hypocrisy of countries like China who talk the talk of openness but do not always deliver. So there is going to be a real clash of the titans at this summit.”

Shock talk brings results

After threatening to not stand by NATO allies unless they pay their share of defense, members pledged to boost their contributions. Trump said he would rip up the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, and now he has a deal with Mexico on sugar exports.

The U.S. leader’s target now is China and its cheap steel exports that are blamed for killing jobs not only in the United States, but in Britain and other G-20 states, including Germany.

Chinese officials are closely watching the direction of U.S. policy and have called on Washington to exercise caution.

Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord has stoked the anger of demonstrators in Hamburg as well as concern among Merkel and some other G-20 leaders, but analysts say the threat of cheap Chinese steel imports could be a common cause, and take precedence.

“Many of the G-20 members are experiencing exactly the same kinds of economic forces and constraints the U.S. is facing,” Shanker Singham, director of economic policy and prosperity studies at the Legatum Institute in London, told VOA. “So for example, in the U.K., the steel mills in Port Talbot and Redcar were closed because of, really, overcapacity of supply by the China steel sector. That is not very much different from what has been going on in Ohio and Pennsylvania. So I think this actually has the opportunity or a chance to get a lot of support.”

Wait-and-see approach

G-20 leaders, while nervous, are waiting to see what Trump actually does before taking any action, and all indications are that they are not rushing to adopt protectionist measures.

Global Trade Alert, a group that monitors protectionism, this week reported a drop in the number of such measures adopted by G-20 members in the last several months compared with the same period last year.

“The Trump administration has said a lot about ‘America First’ and fair trade and so forth, but they haven’t actually done that much so far,” said Singham. “G-20 members will be looking at ‘What do you really mean by this policy?’ in order to determine what their response to that policy will be.”

None of the major issues is likely to be resolved, but analysts say more clarity may emerge, given who the players are.

“The landscape that we see looming in Hamburg is one of showmanship,” said Evans. ”We have a lot of unpredictability because we have a lot of very charismatic, very outspoken leaders — people like [President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan from Turkey, [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi from India, Vladimir Putin from Russia and of course President Trump. These people know how to play to global audiences.”

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