EU Leaders See Trump’s G-7 China Trap But They May Not Evade It

(Bloomberg) -- European leaders are trying to avoid getting boxed in by Donald Trump’s efforts to choreograph an anti-China summit in Washington.

As host of this year’s Group of Seven meetings, the U.S. president gets to invite whomever he wants as guests. But his musings about including leaders from Russia, Australia, India and South Korea, while leaving out China’s Xi Jinping, have set off alarm bells in European capitals.

The lineup is a clear sign that Trump intends to use the meeting to ramp up his campaign against China, European diplomats said, and they are determined not to let their leaders get railroaded into playing along.

One described it as a trap, another said it was an electoral ploy as Trump seeks a second term in November. Both insisted that the European Union is seeking a more moderate line than the U.S. and puts more of a premium on its economic ties to Beijing.

To wriggle free, and to minimize the diplomatic costs, they are using a range of tactics from stalling, to bringing out the G-7 rulebook and trying to pin the mercurial president down to a specific agenda.

But conventional diplomatic maneuvers may not be enough to constrain a U.S. leader who’s shown scant regard for protocol in the past and is likely to be in the grip of a bitter re-election campaign if and when the meeting is scheduled. Under normal circumstances, pulling out would be seen as a nuclear option likely to provoke retaliation from the U.S. With the coronavirus as a fig leaf though, it may still be a tempting option for German Chancellor Angela Merkel or France’s Emmanuel Macron.

The G-20 meeting scheduled for Saudi Arabia in November might offer another excuse. All the G-7 members will be there, as well as China, so they might suggest it was unnecessary to hold an additional session.

Trump’s idea of holding the summit at Camp David this month was already shot down by Merkel. The president wanted to bolster his claims that the U.S. economy is open for business again after the virus lockdown. But Merkel wasn’t sure that it would really be safe to travel, and Trump was pushed to postpone.

“So it might be a G-10, G-11, and it could be held after the election is over,” the president said.

But the Europeans aren’t having that either.

Rules of the Club

The host gets to pick the guests, but the G-7 stays the G-7 unless all the members agree, the Europeans pointed out. The real dealbreaker here is Russia. President Vladimir Putin was kicked out of what was then the G-8 in 2014 after annexing Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. With Crimea still in Russian hands and Russian-backed rebels controlling swathes of eastern Ukraine, it’s way too early to let Putin back into the fold, European leaders say.

All the same, the European Union contingent, which also includes Italy’s Giuseppe Conte, is well aware of the president’s ability to catch them by surprise and they are on constant alert for fresh twists. The latest example came last week when a person familiar with Trump’s plans said that he’d decided to pull almost 10,000 U.S. troops out of Germany.

A Trump tweet can trigger a cascade of calls between European capitals as the diplomats work out how to coordinate their response, according to one senior official.

They aren’t likely to get much backup from the other members of club.

Japan’s Shinzo Abe has never shown much appetite for getting into fights at international summits, and Canada’s Justin Trudeau has too much at stake in his country’s close trade relations and geographic proximity to the U.S. Boris Johnson was a jovial presence who helped to smooth over differences at last year’s meeting in Biarritz, France.

Since then, though, the British leader has ramped up the tensions in negotiations with the EU over Brexit and has struck an independent course on everything from Russia and China to handling the pandemic. A spokesman for Johnson said that his team is in close contact with the U.S. over preparations for the summit and will look at the U.S. proposals for the agenda when they are presented.

Pinning Trump Down

The Europeans have been pushing their counterparts in Washington for months for an agenda, one EU official said.

It’s not just a question of getting organized to maximize the chance of delivering results. The Europeans are convinced that once the agenda is down in writing, then Trump will have less room for maneuver and more chance of shooting himself in the foot.

One European official said that he suspects U.S. diplomats are aware of that too, because the White House has been reluctant to commit to an agenda.

While the coronavirus pandemic is a common issue that all sides want to address, White House spokeswoman Alyssa Farah has said the summit as envisioned by the president would include discussion among traditional allies about how to deal with China going forward.

A senior Trump administration official, who requested anonymity to discuss the matter, said that the U.S. sees the summit as a chance to discuss the international response to the pandemic, and ways to restore economic growth in its wake.

The official discounted the notion that the U.S. had not coordinated the agenda with its European counterparts, pointing out that G7 health ministers had held weekly meetings and that representatives from the member nations had held multiple meetings to discuss opportunities to collaborate on economic issues.

China is already ruffled about outsider interference in its affairs, and this week Beijing protested to Japan about Abe’s efforts to coordinate a G-7 statement on the situation in Hong Kong. Abe’s government is worried about China’s plan to enact sweeping security legislation in Hong Kong, and Japanese public broadcaster NHK said Thursday that France has signed up to the idea of a G-7 foreign ministers’ statement.

A foreign ministers’ statement might allow European leaders to argue that the Hong Kong question has been dealt with before they sit down with Trump. Though Trump is likely to bring up any issues he wants, regardless of the official agenda.

While EU states would rather the talks focused on Covid-19 and climate change, they accept that they won’t be able to avoid China.Their key priority is to keep up a multilateral order which includes China rather than antagonizing it, a German official said.

Signing up for an anti-China stunt would be much more of an issue for Merkel than showing up alongside Putin, with whom she speaks regularly, according to a senior German lawmaker.

“This is quintessential Trump,” said Nathalie Tocci, director of the Institute of International Affairs in Rome. “He intends to make this an anti-China meeting, and he wants to use the multilateral forum and the Europeans in his plan for confrontation.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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