Trump's own brand of diplomacy is on display at G20. How will it fare with Valdimir Putin, Xi Jinping?
OSAKA, Japan – Sure, President Donald Trump once said China is "raping" the United States with unfair trade policies – but now he and Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping refer to one another as friends and Trump has expressed optimism they can make a deal.
Yes, Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential election has raised alarms among U.S. intelligence agencies and on Capitol Hill, but Trump remains intent on pursuing better relations with President Vladimir Putin and wants to work with Moscow on issues such as Syria, Iran, and North Korea.
Since the beginning of his presidency, Trump has put a lot of emphasis on personal diplomacy and has sought to build relationships with Xi and Putin. In the case of Putin, in particular, those efforts have been highly controversial in light of findings by the FBI and others that Moscow interfered in the 2016 election.
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Trump will hold talks with each of the two leaders this week during the G-20 summit, which is being held in Osaka, an ancient port city known for its food and its reconstructed 16th Century castle.
Trump is scheduled to meet Putin on Friday and Xi on Saturday in Osaka.
In his talks with Xi, Trump is seeking progress toward resolving a trade dispute that has dealt a blow to U.S. farmers and manufacturers and is casting a shadow over the U.S. economy. Trump is also looking to enlist Xi's help on the North Korea nuclear standoff and on pressuring Iran.
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Iran and North Korea are also expected to be on the agenda for Trump's meeting with Putin. Hissit downwith the Russian president will be their first face-to-face meeting since special counsel Robert Mueller's report on efforts by Putin's government to interfere in the 2016 election in order to bolster Trump.
The Osaka summit comes just a week after Trump ordered a military strike on Iran in retaliation for the shooting down of a U.S. drone, then changed his mind and imposed more economic sanctions on Tehran instead. Trump is trying to pressure Iran into making a permanent pledge not to develop nuclear weapons.
On Wednesday, Trump told Fox Business Network that he and Xi have a "a great personal relationship."
"He's a friend of mine. I mean, I think he's fantastic, and I think he thinks the same of me," Trump said.
Xi has returned the warm regards, saying this month that "President Trump is my friend." But there is no sign yet that China is willing to give up policies such as the demand that foreign companies share technology and trade secrets in order to do business there.
A 'Plan B' for China
Trump said his only “Plan B” with China, should a trade agreement not materialize, is to try to squeeze that nation’s businesses with ever-higher U.S. tariffs. The president has long argued that the U.S. economy would better off in a trade war with Beijing than with the current trade deficit.
But despite the president’s tough talk, he frequently offers an olive branch to both China and Xi.
“It would be – it would be really bad for China, and I don’t want to be bad for China,” Trump told Fox on Wednesday. “I like him. I like China. I love – I think China’s an incredible nation for what they’ve done.”
Xi has met recently with North Korea leader Kim Jong Un and has said he wants Trump to keep talking about an agreement in which Kim would give up his nuclear weapons programs while the U.S. reduces sanctions on his government. This despite the sudden breakdown of a February summit between Trump and Kim onthose very points.
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'None of your business'
After Trump's last meeting with Putin in Helsinki in July, he came under fire for what his critics saw as an overly deferential manner toward Putin and a willingness to accept the Russian leader's denials of interference in the 2016 election.
This time around, Trump said he "may" bring up election interference with Putin, but made no commitments.
"I’ll have a very good conversation with him," Trump said at the White House on Wednesday before departing for Japan. "What I say to him is none of your business."
Throughout his campaign, and during his presidency, Trump has said that "getting along with Russia" could help the U.S. deal with problems ranging from Syria to North Korea.
But some former U.S. officials and foreign policy experts are uneasy with Trump's warm words for leaders of countries who don't share U.S. democratic values.
"If you don't stand up to them, you end up sacrificing American interests and values," said Aaron David Miller, a former State Department adviser who worked in Republican and Democratic administrations.
Miller also said he saw no indication that Trump's personal rapport with Xi and Putin was yielding results for U.S. policy goals.
"As far as Xi and Putin are concerned," he added, "they have more incommon with one another in opposing American power and deflecting Trump than in making big concessions to him."
Nicholas Burns, a professor of international affairs at Harvard and undersecretary of the State Department during the George W. Bush administration, said it is "striking and disturbing" to see Trump so polite with leaders like Xi and Putin, and so "caustic" with allies like German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
"At a time when democracy is under assault, he is not leading as JFK and Reagan did so successfully in the past," Burns said. "As a result, Europeans are losing faith in the U.S. Our NATO and East Asian allies are America’s great force multiplier around the world."
Trump and aides said he is tackling long-standing problems and has been tough with his friends when necessary.
Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Trump seems more interested in specific transactions with other leaders than in promotingbroad American values.
Yet the true strength of the country is not in its military or its economy, she said, but "the strength of its ideas and values – what we stand for, and what we are prepared to defend."
Said Conley: "We lose our leadership ability."
While attending the G-20, Trump is also scheduled to meet with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Trump's meeting with the Saudi prince comes a week after a report from a top U.N. human rights expert containing explosive new details on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi inside a Saudi consulate in Turkey last fall.
That report documented "credible evidence" that high-level officials in Saudi Arabia – including the kingdom's crown prince and de facto ruler, bin Salman– were involved in the death of Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and U.S. resident.
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