G20 – 2018: a new opportunity for dialogue between the USA and China?

The world’s most economically powerful nations gathered in Buenos Aires in December to discuss trade, work, sustainability and infrastructure issues. In the spotlight were relations between United States and China.

At the 2018 meeting of the G20, held in Buenos Aires last December, leaders of the world’s largest economies met to discuss international financial stability. I had been waiting for this event with keen interest, given the complex international situations facing the world, characterized by new tensions and the seeming return of nationalist impulses in many countries.

The annual G20 meeting is a hugely important event that allows observers to gauge the health of relationships between states and to detect possible changes in the hierarchy of powers that dominate the international economic scene.

With the most powerful countries in the world dealing directly with each other, it is crucial that the delicate equilibrium between states be preserved.

In Buenos Aires there were many topics to discuss, and, as expected, the United States, China and Russia were the three main protagonists. Among other countries there were Italy, Japan and the European Union. During the two-day meeting, the discussions were mainly about economics and finance, but also took in Brexit and commercial relationships.

This last point is of particular interest, given that international trade is becoming a topic where the United States and China are confronting each other in the international arena. And this is under the watchful eye of Russia, which seems to have mended the ancient ruptures with Beijing and is more ready to act in concert with the Asian giant.

On the sidelines of the conference, the meeting between US President Donald Trump and the Chinese President Xi Jinping was very popular with the media. It came off as a seemingly relaxed encounter, after months of clashes and tensions. Two-and-a-half hours of talk finally established a grace period on tariffs (the main reason for the dispute between the two powers) that will last 90 days.

This gives the two sides a three-month period to come to a definitive agreement that will then open a new phase of dialogue between the two economic powers. Trump himself promised that the first of January would no longer see an increase in trade tariffs to 25% on over $200 billion of Chinese products.

In return, the Chinese leader pledged to buy a series of agricultural, industrial, and energy products from the United States, which had been affected by restrictive measures put in place by Beijing. If, however, within the ninety days there is no agreement, then the new tariffs will be triggered by the United States, and we will undoubtedly see the return of tensions between the two countries.

But it is worth looking in more detail at the grace period on tariffs. As previously noted, the US has promised that, from 1 January, they will temporarily leave the tariffs on $200 billion of goods exported from China to the US at 10%, without the threatened increase to 25%. However, the aspects on which the two sides have yet to find an agreement are numerous: there are negotiations on the import and export of technology, on the protection of intellectual property, on non-tariff barriers, on cyber-intrusion and cyber-theft, on services, and on agriculture.

But if no agreement is reached, Trump has already said that the 10% tariffs will be raised to 25%, with serious repercussions to the Chinese economy, serious repercussions on international stock exchanges, and on Europe itself.

This would be a further area of confrontation between the two superpowers and, given the stakes, it could be in Trump’s interest to dampen the US’s tone and take a more collaborative approach to the relationship with Beijing, especially in light of the recent rapprochement of China to Russia, with whom they share sometimes difficult relations with the west.

The next three months will therefore be crucial to delineate future international equilibrium. Already, Russia and China have demonstrated that they understand each other and their military strength with the joint Vostok 2018 military exercises held last September.

A more hostile relationship between the United States and China would certainly be a major factor of uncertainty for future developments in the world economy. In fact, it would draw into question not only the future economic stability of the two giants, but also of all those countries that are in the orbit of the two economic powerhouses.

In my opinion, however, there are reasons to hope for a positive outcome, especially considering the help offered by China to the US at the next important meeting of the American president with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, currently scheduled for February.

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