Trump tensions push China and Germany closer at G20
Will champions of globalisation Xi and Merkel stay united in face of America First policy?
Chinese president Xi Jinping (second left) and his wife Peng Liyuan (left), German chancellor Angela Merkel and Reinhard Grindel, president of the German Football Association, at a Germany vs China under-12 soccer match at Olympic Park in Berlin, Germany, July 5th, 2017. Photograph: Ronald Wittek/EPA
Global summits have become wildly unpredictable events since Donald Trump became US president. As leaders arrive in Hamburg for the G20 meeting, nerves will jangle as China’s Xi Jinping and Germany’s Angela Merkel address the new realities since Trump’s inauguration.
The days when the US would pitch up at an international summit to outline strategies on defending global rules on equal market access, human rights, development or combating climate change, seem to be gone, and now Germany and China are assuming the mantle of leadership on matters relating to globalisation.
When Trump met Xi in Mar-a-Lago in April, the US president told his Chinese counterpart over chocolate cake that he had just bombed Syria. The story is told of how the Chinese president was so stunned he asked the translator to repeat what he just said.
Xi would have been angrier at such an unprecedented insult had not Trump subsequently bowed to China on the thorniest issues in Sino-US relations, from withdrawing the threat of trade sanctions, to not labelling China a currency manipulator and to agreeing to recognise the One-China policy on Taiwan.
In return for these concessions, Trump felt he had won Chinese agreement to strangle the North Korean economy, thereby forcing it to delay its nuclear programme, which this week looks to have taken a major step forward through the developing of a missile that could possibly reach Alaska.
Most analysts agree Trump overestimates China’s influence on North Korea as well as its appetite for more sanctions and increased isolation of a dangerously unstable neighbour and erstwhile ally, but the upshot has been Trump’s tweet this week saying: “Trade between China and North Korea grew almost 40% in the first quarter. So much for China working with us – but we had to give it a try!”
North Korea will be high on the agenda at the G20, and we can expect an edgy meeting between Xi and Trump that no chocolate cake can soothe.
Then there is trade. Trump has set the US on an inward-looking, “America First” course which has turned Xi and Merkel into the world’s great champions of globalisation.
The Chinese media has been lavish in its praise for the growing closeness between the industrial giants of Asia and Europe. There has been little other than scorn for the US, which to Beijing’s irritation has sailed its warships into areas of the South China Sea which China claims as its own, and also has resumed arms sales to Taiwan.
“China is willing to work with Germany to inject more vitality into comprehensive China-Germany co-operation in a bid to benefit the two peoples, and to jointly promote world peace, stability and prosperity,” Xi said this week.
Two pandas were safely installed in Berlin Zoo, and the mutual appreciation continued, yet Xi and Merkel are unlikely allies. Xi is the authoritarian communist chief of a giant quasi-capitalist economy that seeks to establish its credentials as a global power, whose eyes are firmly on a domestic party congress this autumn at which he will cement his power.
East German Merkel has little love for communists, but is eager to boost Europe’s global importance. An election looms, and the German economy is dependent on Chinese consumers buying its cars and industrial equipment to keep growth on track.
“For Beijing, the goal is to present itself as a generous, co-operative and friendly power, at home and abroad. It is also a distraction from politically controversial topics,” writes Prof Sebastian Heilmann, director of the Mercator Institute for China Studies.
“There are common interests in global trade and climate policy as well as in the commitment to further develop multilateral rules for international co-operation. On many issues on the G20 agenda, both countries are working together,” he said.
This closeness and new relationship has been on the cards since Trump left a vacuum in the region by abandoning the proposed 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement within a day of taking office. Such a vacuum offered a major opportunity for China to push its Belt and Road Initiative, which aims to develop infrastructure.
Isolation in evidence
Another area in focus is the environment – after he pulled the US out, Trump has left Germany, China and France as the main backers of the 2015 Paris Agreement to slow global warming. The accord was signed by more than 190 countries, including all G20 members. US isolation was already in evidence at the G7 in Italy last month.
By focusing on environment and trade, China and Germany can paper over divisive elements, especially on market access and human rights.
But these are major divisions. Trump’s mercurial behaviour may have pushed China and Germany into new roles, but the Sino-German relationship is far from becoming predictable.