The G-20 Summit these next two days seems like it will be a gathering of U.S. President Donald Trump and 19 enemy leaders.
After all, whom isn't he at war with these days? In just the past few hours, Trump has said Europe "treats us worse than China," that India's "very high tariffs" on U.S. goods are "unacceptable" and "must be withdrawn," and apparently is musing that the post-World War II treaty for the United States to defend military-free Japan should be torn up.
He has said of what he calls the G-20 "competitors" that the United States is "doing better than any of them."
Trump has landed in Japan as I write this, where the gathering takes place on Friday and Saturday in that country's "second city," Osaka. He has entered into a cyclone that seems set to turn into a typhoon, a detail I wish I had thought to make up if it wasn't true. His first engagement is an easy dinner with surprisingly re-elected Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
Trump always plays nice in person, so I'm sure he'll wage love more than war with the competitors. The heavyweight encounter is an unofficial bout, with Trump penciled in to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping on Saturday. He will also sit down with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and host Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, all with trade and military alliances on his mind.
My reading from here in Hong Kong where I live is that we'll get little of substance but might get some positive posturing. Trump and Xi demonstrate great mutual respect each time they meet. Indeed, they each need the other cast in the role of the "bad guy" so that they can look good back home. Smiles and "winning" handshakes all around then.
Everyone here in Hong Kong and greater China will be waiting for any gasp of an utterance that the trade war might see another truce. It's hurting China -- in morale and exports -- and working all the way down the supply chain. The Chinese yuan looks set to breach the level of 7.0 to the U.S. dollar for the first time in a decade, a psychological and practical blow that affects the rest of Asia, as I examined on Wednesday.
U.S.-Chinese trade talks have been led down a dead-end street as they now stand. No one is going anywhere. Out of the Trump-Xi meeting we will be looking for somewhere, anywhere, to go. Both leaders have an interest in trumpeting that they've led the way.
Osakans are a laid-back bunch, known for quirky senses of humor and a penchant for wearing pink dress shirts to work. They will need all their charm as hosts.
Shinzo Abe has perhaps the toughest task this weekend. The cad -- he'll be wining and dining both Trump and Xi.
"He will have both of his 'girlfriends' there at the party -- and will somehow have to appease them both without letting him know he's in bed with the other one," a Tokyo-based American investor told me recently.
Trump appears to get on better with Abe thanw ith any other world leader. After all, Abe was the first foreign leader to come calling at Trump Tower after Trump won the election. Trump was likewise the first foreign leader to meet newly installed Japanese Emperor Naruhito after the latter's father recently abdicated from the imperial throne.
But if Abe is "cheating" on Trump with Xi, Trump has also betrayed the Japanese leader. Abe worked mightily against the symbolically important farm lobby (rice!) to get Japan into the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which expanded out of bilateral Japan-U.S. trade negotiations. Then, with his very first act in office, Trump pulled the United States out of the partnership.
Abe and Trump have history, then.
But now, Trump has been privately pondering how peeved he is at the post-World War II Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between America and Japan. That deal lets the United States have military bases in Japan, and says that both countries will support each other in case of an attack on either one's forces within Japanese territory. But since Japan's constitution forbids it from having "land, sea and air forces," Japan isn't allowed to have troops in the first place, or use "force as a means of settling international disputes." So, it can't really defend the United States in its home.
Like Trump's beef with NATO, he feels aggrieved about footing the bill for the U.S. role as world peacekeeper. Still, my Tokyo-based investor notes that it has been disastrous historically when Japan feels abandoned. Such sentiment led to an attack on Port Arthur, in what was then Manchuria, to kick off the Russo-Japanese War in 1904. And, of course, it led to Pearl Harbor ahead of U.S.-Japan fighting in World War II.
So Abe needs to feel Trump's love. A Japanese government spokesman has already said "there is no such talk" about tearing up the U.S.-Japan defense treaty, having confirmed with the White House that Trump's private feelings aren't official American government policy.
Trump's annoyance with the treaty first came up in a Bloomberg report citing three unidentified sources saying he'd told confidants that he has considered pulling out of the 1951 pact. I'm betting it's true. It looks like it was leaked on purpose to get concessions out of Japan.
But the G-20 is, in fact, not all about Trump ... believe it or not.
For one thing, Hong Kong is involved even though it's not in the G-20. Protesters are in the streets here trying to get G-20 leaders to raise the issue of Hong Kong autonomy with Xi. They've taken out advertisements in international media to that effect. I doubt it'll work, but the demonstrators here have already surprised everyone by their success getting an extradition bill delayed.
For the actual members of the G-20, there will be meetings at eight other cities around Japan. The 40 or so finance ministers and central-bank governors of the 19 member nations and the European Union will jointly gather in Fukuoka. Foreign ministers meet up in Nagoya. There are also ministerial meetings on labor, tourism, trade, energy, health and agriculture.
Xi is due to meet Abe Thursday evening, the first time Xi has visited Japan since he took power in 2013. Xi also just visited North Korea, and there are still minor territorial disputes between the two nations.
Abe wants to make the Osaka summit about the environment and climate change. That would be a wise move because Trump couldn't care less.
He can be left out, but French President Emanuel Macron is on board. He says climate change is a "red-line issue" for any G-20 communique, and he won't sign one if the summit doesn't get somewhere on that.
An environmental agreement could be the main landmark out of Osaka. Trade niceties are certain, but a move forward on trade talks between these most important economic nations would be a welcome outcome for all.