In Depth

G20 summit: the diciest issues on the agenda

From US-China tensions to the death of Jamal Khashoggi, world leaders have plenty to discuss at meeting in Buenos Aires

Representatives from the world’s major economies are facing major diplomatic challenges as they meet in Argentina this week for the annual G20 summit.

The G20 leaders “are expected to struggle to agree on a joint statement on two of the biggest, and thorniest, global issues on their agenda - trade and climate change”, says CNBC.

“It's a club that is even more difficult to manage than the G7,” a French diplomatic source told the US-based broadcaster. “Let’s face it, the issues are difficult, the talks have been difficult since last year. It will be the case again this year, maybe even tougher.”

Further problems are posed by US President Donald Trump’s “buffoonish unpredictability”, which “has now become a regular wildcard at these gatherings, whether because of his hostility to European allies or his unceasing embrace of Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin”, says Forbes.

With the two-day summit due to kick off in Buenos Aires on Friday, what are the trickiest topics on the agenda?

US-China tensions

Economists have warned that the looming showdown between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jingping at the meeting “will have significant repercussions for the global economy”, says the Financial Times.

Earlier this week Larry Kudlow, director of the US National Economic Council, said it was up to China to “step up and come up with new ideas” to break the deadlock.

“We can’t find much change in their approach,” Kudlow told White House reporters. “President Xi may have a lot more to say in the bilateral [with Trump], I hope he does, by the way, I think we all hope he does... but at the moment, we don’t see it.”

His comments suggest that Trump’s plans to raise tariffs on $200bn worth of Chinese goods from January will probably go into effect unless a breakthrough occurs. Trump indicated as much during an interview with The Wall Street Journal last month, saying that he would be “highly unlikely” to reverse his decision.

Putin watch

Trump is also scheduled to sit down with Putin for their first face-to-face meeting since July’s controversial US-Russia summit in Finland.

But this week’s bilateral is now in jeopardy following news over the weekend that Russian vessels seized three Ukrainian ships near Crimea, provoking a storm of protest in Europe.

Trump told The Washington Post that he was waiting for a report on the incident from his national security advisers before whether to go ahead with the talks with Putin. “That will be very determinative. Maybe I won’t have the meeting,” the US president said.

The ratcheting up of tensions in Crimea has solidified Putin’s dominance in the run-up to the summit, according to Politico. “To be perfectly honest, we don’t have many options,” a senior European official told the website. “We don’t want to risk war, but Putin is already waging one. That makes us look weak.”

Also on Putin’s agenda is a first meeting with Theresa May since the novichok poisonings in Wiltshire in March and June. 

The death of Jamal Khashoggi

Human rights groups have called on the authorities in Argentina to arrest Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, when he arrives for the summit, after the CIA reportedly concluded that the crown prince ordered the recent murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

Buenos Aires-based newspaper Clarin quotes judicial sources as saying that arresting the Saudi royal would be “very difficult” and that Khashoggi’s murder might not qualify as a “crime against human rights”.

Nevertheless, the request “will cause further embarrassment for the crown prince when he arrives in the city for the summit”, says The Times.

Meanwhile, The Guardian reports that President Trump has said he remains willing to meet with bin Salman in Buenos Aires, after insisting no conclusion had been reached over his involvement in Khashoggi’s death at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has clashed with Saudi Arabia over the killing, is also considering a request from the Saudi government for a meeting with the crown prince on the summit’s sidelines.

Climate change

Among the many problematic aspects of this year’s summit, the “most disappointing, maybe, is the dramatic shift in language compared to last year’s G20 Leaders Declaration” on climate change, says environmental news site CleanTechnica.

According to Climate Home News, the new draft communique from the G20 leaders fails to back the Paris Climate Agreement, instead simply “acknowledging the different circumstances, including those of countries determined to implement the Paris Agreement”.

Speaking to reporters after the draft was leaked earlier this month, Argentina’s G20 emissary Pedro Villagra Delgado said: “Of course, we want the Paris Agreement to be mentioned, but we want it to be mentioned, encompassing everyone, albeit in an ambiguous way. The United States does not say that nothing should be done [about climate change], but that they do not want to have neither the obligations nor the goals imposed by the Paris Agreement.”

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