With G20 underway, all eyes are on China and threats to global trade system

Click to play video: 'G20 leaders highlight global trade concerns during first day of summit'
G20 leaders highlight global trade concerns during first day of summit
Many leaders of the world's top 20 economies at the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan, have voiced concern over trade tensions and the risk they pose to global growth, but were at odds on key issues such as World Trade Organization reform, according to delegates who spoke to Reuters – Jun 28, 2019

The stakes are high for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as the first day of the G20 Summit in Osaka, Japan, gets underway.

The meeting between leaders from the world’s 20 largest economies comes amid escalating tensions caused by a trade war between the United States and China as well as a diplomatic feud between Canada and China over the arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou.

READ MORE: Justin Trudeau sits with Chinese president Xi Jinping at G20 luncheon

And while the fate of two Canadians detained by China in retaliation for the Meng arrest will be top of mind for Trudeau, the context of broader disruptions to the international rule of law caused by the ongoing dispute between the world’s largest economies will also be at the forefront of talks on how to move forward.

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“U.S.-China trade tensions will dominate this summit,” said Roland Paris, a professor of international affairs at the University of Ottawa and a former foreign policy adviser to Trudeau at the start of his mandate.

“The G20 is a body focused mainly on economic issues, and the future of the world trade system is under threat.”

The election of U.S. President Donald Trump in 2016 highlighted spreading concerns about the impact of globalization and international trade on workers.

He has, in turn, turned American foreign policy inwards, moving the country towards isolationism while wielding tariffs and other economic threats as leverage to bend other countries to his will in trade talks. He has also shunned the global institutions that the U.S. helped build in the aftermath of the Second World War and embraced a range of autocrats and traditional U.S. antagonists as partners, including Russian President Vladimir Putin.

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In a meeting with Putin on Friday, Trump appeared to tease the Russian leader whose country was found to have extensively interfered in the presidential elections, pointing a finger and telling Putin, “Don’t meddle in the election.”

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The Associated Press reported Putin then laughed.

WATCH BELOW: China-Canada dispute among issues Trudeau seeking global support for at G20

Click to play video: 'China-Canada dispute among issues Trudeau seeking global support for at G20'
China-Canada dispute among issues Trudeau seeking global support for at G20

Along with the spread of rising populism, the challenges to international rules and order pose a threat to global trade, which is heavily reliant on the certainty that comes with setting standardized rules of play and on having enforcement tools to enforce them.

But the isolationist approach taken by Trump and others undermines those very institutions by chipping away at their foundations, and the future of them is set to be a key theme on the minds of leaders at the Osaka Summit into Saturday as Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping try to rally supporters to their sides of the ongoing trade tensions.

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WATCH BELOW: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Chinese President Xi Jinping speak on the sidelines of the G20 Summit

Click to play video: 'Trudeau, China’s Xi Jinping talk on sidelines of G20 summit'
Trudeau, China’s Xi Jinping talk on sidelines of G20 summit

“The trade war is really the ‘elephant in the room,’ even though this is supposed to be a meeting among the G20 leaders,” said Lynette Ong, an associate professor with the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and an expert on China.

“China will try rally some countries among the G20 to be on its side, such as Russia and Japan. The tougher the U.S. tried to rally its ally countries to press against China in areas such as Huawei and 5G, the greater effort we are likely to see is China reacting in the same manner.”

At the same time, Trudeau has also asked Trump to raise the issue of the two detained Canadians with Xi during their meeting.

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Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were detained by China shortly after Canadian border officials arrested Meng at the request of the U.S., which has since charged her and her company with 23 counts of skirting sanctions on Iran and corporate espionage. They have received only limited consular access since.

Canada has been pushing the U.S. and prominent Trump allies to speak out on the detentions and ramp up the pressure on China for continuing to hold them hostage as Meng’s extradition case works through the courts, as Chinese officials have suggested they are doing.

While raising the issue is unlikely to lead to the pair’s release at this point, Paris said there are important reasons to keep doing it.

“Doing so raises the political costs for China of holding them, and it might discourage them from using the same tactic again. Canada and its partners need to work together on this since we don’t have much direct leverage over China by ourselves,” he said.

“Canada also doesn’t want Trump to forget about the two Canadians if and when U.S.-China trade talks resume. If Trump raises their case now in Japan, the chances are higher that he won’t forget about them later.”

The G20 Summit continues through Friday and Saturday before wrapping up.

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