World leaders gather in Japan's Osaka port city for a two-day summit with US-China trade war, Iran tensions and climate change on agenda.

Leaders and delegates at a family photo session at the G20 leaders summit in Osaka, Japan, June 28, 2019.
Leaders and delegates at a family photo session at the G20 leaders summit in Osaka, Japan, June 28, 2019. (Reuters)

World leaders attending a Group of 20 summit in Japan that began on Friday are clashing over the values that have served for decades as the foundation of their cooperation as they face calls to fend off threats to economic growth.

"A free and open economy is the basis for peace and prosperity," Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told his counterparts in opening the two-day G20 meeting that comes as leaders grapple with profound tensions over trade, globalisation and the collapsing nuclear deal with Iran.

While groups like the G20 endeavour to forge consensus on broad policy approaches and geopolitical issues, the rifts between them run both shallow and deep.

Putin and liberal democracy

Speaking before the formal opening of the summit, European Union President Donald Tusk blasted Russian President Vladimir Putin for saying in an interview with the Financial Times newspaper that liberalism was "obsolete" and conflicts with the "overwhelming majority" in many countries.

"We are here as Europeans also to firmly and unequivocally defend and promote liberal democracy," Tusk told reporters. "What I find really obsolete are: authoritarianism, personality cults, the rule of oligarchs.

Even if sometimes they may seem effective."

As US President Donald Trump, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Putin and other leaders met on the sidelines of the summit, Tusk told reporters that such comments suggest a belief that "freedoms are obsolete, that the rule of law is obsolete and that human rights are obsolete."

'Don't meddle please'

Trump came face to face with Russia's Vladimir Putin on Friday for the first time since the special counsel found extensive evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 US election. 

When asked if he would warn Russia not to meddle in the next election, Trump wore a bit of a smile, pointed his finger at Putin and dryly said: "Don't meddle in the election, please."

Putin praised Trump for his efforts to try to stop the flow of migrants and drugs from Mexico and said that liberalism "presupposes that nothing needs to be done. That migrants can kill, plunder and rape with impunity because their rights as migrants have to be protected."

Putin, Trump, Macron and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also met on the sidelines.

China-US trade war on display

A planned meeting between Trump and the Chinese president on Saturday has raised hopes for a detente in the tariffs war between the world's two largest economies.

US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross accompanied Trump to Osaka, suggesting potential for some movement after 11 rounds of talks stalled in May.

But while prospects for detente in the trade war are in the spotlight, many participating were urging a broader perspective in tackling global crises.

"I am deeply concerned over the current global economic situation. The world is paying attention to the direction we, the G20 leaders, are moving toward," Abe said. 

"We need to send a strong message, which is to support and strengthen a free, fair and indiscriminatory trade system."

TRT World's Melinda Nucifora reports from Osaka. 

Major breakthrough in stand-off not assured

On Thursday, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman in Beijing reiterated that China is determined to defend itself against further US moves to penalise it over trade friction. 

China often has sought to gain support for defending global trade agreements against Trump's "America First" stance in gatherings like the G20.

Threats by Trump to impose more tariffs on Chinese exports "won't work on us because the Chinese people don't believe in heresy and are not afraid of pressure," the spokesman, Geng Shuang, said.

Trump has at times found himself at odds with other leaders in such international events, particularly on issues such as Iran, climate change and trade.

Issues beyond trade

Abe has sought to make the Osaka summit a landmark for progress on environmental issues, including climate change, on cooperation in developing new rules for the "digital economy," such as devising fair ways to tax companies like Google and Facebook, and on strengthening precautions against abuse of technologies such as cyber-currencies to fund terrorism and other types of internet-related crimes.

On the rising tensions between Iran and the US, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the world can't afford the conflict and it was "essential to deescalate the situation" and avoid confrontation. 

Iran is soon poised to surpass a key uranium stockpile threshold, threatening the nuclear accord it reached with world powers in 2015.

Iran's moves come after Trump announced in May 2018 that he was pulling the US out of the deal and reimposing economic sanctions on Tehran.

Guterres also urged G20 leaders to take action on equitable and stable reforms to strengthen the global financial safety net and increase the global economy's resilience.

While there are good plans and vision, what's needed are "accelerated actions, not more deliberations," he said in a letter to the leaders.

Fast and equal economic growth should be constructed so that people who live in "the 'rust belts' of the world are not left behind," he said.

The leaders of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, in a meeting on the G20 sidelines, called for joint efforts to stabilise international trade and oppose protectionism.

Putin, whose country faces an array of US and EU sanctions, said at the meeting that "international trade has suffered from protectionism, politically motivated restrictions and barriers." 

The Russian president also emphasised the need for BRICS nations to take coordinated action to help block sources of funding for terrorist groups.

Setting the tone for trade combat

Trump set a combative tone even before arriving in Japan, taking aim at India, which he accused of seeking to increase tariffs on US goods.

And he said China was eager for a trade truce because its economy was "going down the tubes", appearing to also threaten another $325 billion in levies in addition to the $200 billion Washington has already imposed.

He struck a slightly more conciliatory tone on Friday morning, in brief remarks ahead of talks with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

"I know we are going to have a very successful day," the US leader said. He is scheduled for a long-awaited meeting with Xi on Saturday, his first since last year's G20.

Efforts by the rivals to reach a trade deal fell apart in May, ramping up a spat that has proved a serious headwind for the world economy.

Source: AFP