The U.S. traditionally takes point in the search for common approaches to the big global issues of the day at G-20 summits. Not this time.
When world leaders meet in Hamburg on Friday, China and Germany will move in to usurp the U.S.’s role.
The two industrial powerhouses of Asia and Europe are being nudged into an informal alliance to pick up the leadership baton that the U.S. is accused of having dropped since President Donald Trump’s inauguration earlier this year, according to diplomats and officials from several Group of 20 members.
The situation has crystallized ahead of this year’s annual G-20 meeting, which will be held in Germany’s busiest commercial port. That’s in part because, for the first time since the group’s founding, the U.S. will be represented by a president who embraces protectionism, abandoning decades of American cheer-leading for free trade.
The U.S. was also isolated on climate change at a May summit of the smaller Group of Seven club in Italy, where the final communique split six-to-one on the issue. This time, Trump risks finding himself alone against a united front of European allies, neighbors such as Canada and Mexico, and America’s former Cold War foes on the two biggest summit items.
As the previous and current hosts, China’s President Xi Jinping and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel would in any case have worked together on the G-20 agenda. Yet three visits to Germany by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to date, the latest just last month, suggest the two nations are aligned on stepping more broadly into a space that the U.S. has, at least temporarily, left vacant under Trump’s presidency.
“China and Germany’s new closeness is something that happened because of the Trump episode,” said Diego Ramiro Guelar, ambassador to Beijing for G-20 member Argentina. “The two most important leaders in the world are President Xi and Chancellor Merkel at the moment.”
Ties between China and Germany have been strengthening for years, driven by common economic interests and unobstructed by the kinds of geopolitical rivalries that were complicating relations between Beijing and Washington long before Trump’s election. Germany needs markets for its high-end industrial machinery and motor vehicles, and China wants them — so much so it bought German robotics company Kuka AG.
Xi will make his second state visit to Germany just before the summit. Two giant pandas that China will loan to the Berlin Zoo arrived already, a gesture sometimes described as panda diplomacy. China gave two pandas to the U.S. in 1972, after President Richard Nixon made his historic first visit to Communist China.