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President Trump heads to Japan this afternoon for the G-20 summit. But much of the focus will be on the G-2, the United States and China. President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping have a chance to diffuse their ongoing trade war, or possibly to escalate it. NPR's Scott Horsley has the story.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Summits like the G-20 are often a chance for geopolitical speed dating. President Trump has meetings scheduled with at least eight world leaders over the next three days. But none is more consequential than his sit-down Saturday with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Two big, very different personalities jockeying for global power and economic might with hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of trade on the line. Matthew Goodman, who served in both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, says the talks could go either way.
MATTHEW GOODMAN: They may have an incentive to do a deal and shake hands. I think that's the least likely outcome. The other extreme is that they have a breakdown and they decide they're going to escalate further. That's possible, but I think also not the most likely.
HORSLEY: Like many observers, Goodman thinks the likeliest course is a temporary truce that leaves existing tariffs in place but postpones additional taxes on Chinese imports while the two sides go back to the bargaining table. David Dollar, who focused on China at the Treasury Department and the World Bank, agrees. Although Trump has threatened to impose tariffs on another $300 billion worth of Chinese goods, Dollar says that would be costly for both countries.
DAVID DOLLAR: At the minimum, I think it's in the U.S. interest to hold off on the next round of tariffs 'cause I think that's going to have a fairly serious effect on the U.S. economy and a bad effect on markets.
HORSLEY: The stock market breathed a sigh of relief last week when Trump said he had a very good telephone conversation with Xi. Still, Dollar says, it's doubtful the two countries can quickly nail down an agreement that would address all the U.S. concerns around intellectual property protection and China's forced transfer of American know-how.
DOLLAR: I just don't see how that can be negotiated in the next couple of days.
HORSLEY: The White House also downplayed expectations for the Xi meeting, saying Trump is comfortable with any outcome. Ordinarily, the U.S. could expect some support from allies around the G-20 table, many of whom share Washington's concerns about China. But Michael Green of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says Trump has pursued a go-it-alone strategy while simultaneously picking fights with Europe, Japan and neighbors in North America.
MICHAEL GREEN: What we're doing is we're saying loudly that we're the sheriff, and there's a bad guy at the end of the street and we're going to get him. You know, we're calling the posse together, which would be Japan and Europe, and then we're shooting at them.
HORSLEY: Far from rallying the international community, Trump often thumbs his nose at it. In fact, it's not clear the president will even go along with the traditional joint statement at the end of the G-20 summit if other countries insist on including tough warnings about protectionism or the dangers of manmade climate change. That could be awkward for Japan, which is hosting the summit. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has frequently courted Trump both on and off the golf course. Mireya Solis of the Brookings Institution says Abe will try to preserve a veneer of international cooperation.
MIREYA SOLIS: He wants to have a functional G-20. But with a very unconventional president and outspoken critic, I think that's going to be an uphill battle.
HORSLEY: Abe will hold his own one-on-one meeting with Trump where they'll discuss a possible U.S.-Japan trade agreement. Trump's withdrawal from a big Asia-Pacific trade pact has left U.S. exporters at a disadvantage in Japan. Trump wants to strike a new bargain. If that fails, he's held out the threat of steep tariffs on Japanese cars.
Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.
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