At G-7 Summit, Donald Trump embraces consensus over confrontation on China and Iran

At G-7 Summit, Donald Trump embraces consensus over confrontation on China and Iran

Taken together, Donald Trump’s bursts of diplomacy on China and Iran punctuated a trip that began with what Macron later called “nervousness” that he would sow discord, and ended with relief that the Group of Seven had found some common ground instead.

At G-7 Summit, Donald Trump embraces consensus over confrontation on China and Iran
US President Donald Trump at the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, US. (Reuters Photo: Tasos Katopodis)

Written by Michael D. Shear and Peter Baker

President Donald Trump shifted his tone on the trade war with China yet again Monday, expressing confidence that the two sides can reach a deal and calling President Xi Jinping a “great leader” three days after branding him an “enemy.”

As he completed an international summit meeting, Trump told reporters that Chinese officials had reached out by telephone and that negotiators would restart trade talks after the latest escalation in tariffs and his “order” to US companies to look for ways to pull out of China.

In another surprise, Trump said he was open to meeting with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran within the next few weeks in response to an initiative by President Emmanuel Macron of France. Such a meeting would be the first between US and Iranian leaders since the Tehran hostage crisis of 1979-81.


The change in the president’s language about China was especially striking given his hard-line approach over the last few days, and it seemed to reassure markets rattled by the latest escalation of tariffs Friday. But it was not clear how concrete an opening China really had made.

Taken together, Trump’s bursts of diplomacy on China and Iran punctuated a trip that began with what Macron later called “nervousness” that he would sow discord, and ended with relief that the Group of Seven had found some common ground instead.

“This was a big step above in terms of unity, in terms of agreement,” Trump said, echoing Macron at a news conference before returning to Washington from the G-7 meetings at a beach resort in the south of France. “We have really great agreement on a lot of very important subjects.”

The uncertain prospects for both diplomatic initiatives — not to mention the unusual cordiality among Trump and the leaders of France, Britain, Canada, Italy, Japan and Germany — was heightened by the president’s dramatic shifts in tone throughout the weekend.

On Friday, after China imposed new tariffs in retaliation for US levies, Trump said he “hereby ordered” US companies to start leaving China, vowed to increase his own tariffs and referred to Xi of China as an “enemy.” On Sunday, Trump said he had harbored “second thoughts” about the escalation. Within hours, aides rushed out statements saying his only regret was that he had not been even tougher on China.

And by Monday, Trump expressed confidence that the two sides could reach a deal and called Xi a “great leader.”

It is unclear if the president’s change in approach will prove durable. But Trump heard an earful during the weekend of discussions about the need to avoid a trade-driven calamity with China.

“We were called and we’re going to start very shortly to negotiate,” Trump said. “We’ll see what happens, but I think we’re going to make a deal.” He added that the Chinese seemed ready to agree. “This is the first time I’ve seen them where they really want to make a deal.”

Read | ‘Sorry, it’s the way I negotiate’: Trump’s reply to journalist questioning his China strategy

Although Trump originally said the US side had received two phone calls, Beijing did not immediately confirm any, and the editor of a state-run newspaper wrote on Twitter that there had been no significant contacts in recent days. Asked about that contradiction, Trump insisted there had been “numerous calls” in the previous 48 hours.

Either way, Trump appeared to be trying to tamp down the conflict shortly before financial markets reopened. Stock prices ended higher.

Trump cited a public appeal for calm by China’s chief negotiator, Liu He, taking it as a signal that Beijing wanted to deescalate.

“We are willing to resolve the issue through consultations and cooperation in a calm attitude and resolutely oppose the escalation of the trade war,” Liu, a Chinese vice premier, said in a speech that got the president’s notice. “We believe that the escalation of the trade war is not beneficial for China, the United States nor to the interests of the people of the world.”

Liu’s comments simply restated long-standing Chinese policy, and China’s state media did not initially give them much attention. But coming after days of combative statements and actions, Trump invested great meaning in the comments.

The developments with Iran took many by surprise.

Macron, who has tried to preserve the 2015 nuclear agreement that Trump has abandoned, issued a last-minute invitation to Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, to talk on the sidelines of the G-7 meetings Sunday.

The French president took that further Monday by saying he had spoken with Rouhani and was confident that if Trump met with him, the two could find a potential deal on Iran’s nuclear ambitions and what the Americans and their allies consider Iran’s destabilizing activities in the Middle East.

Joining Macron at a news conference at the end of the G-7 sessions, Trump expressed willingness to meet with Rouhani without eagerly embracing it. “If the circumstances were correct or right, I would certainly agree to that,” Trump said. “But in the meantime, they have to be good players.”

Trump, who has reimposed sanctions to cripple Iran’s economy, said the idea of a meeting with Rouhani within weeks sounded realistic, if not certain. And he even said that if talks were to begin, he would be willing to support short-term loans to Iran secured by oil to help the country withstand its current financial troubles.

“We can have it done in a very short period of time, and I really believe that Iran can be a great nation,” Trump said after Macron announced the Iran effort. “I would like to see that happen. But they can’t have nuclear weapons. OK?”

He added a note of caution, saying that if Iranian leaders pursue their aims at the expense of America’s national interests, “they’re going to be met with really violent force.”

Iran promised in the nuclear agreement to never attain nuclear weapons. Trump has called the agreement too weak because many of its provisions expire after a certain number of years and because it does not restrict Iran’s ballistic missile program or address its support for what the United States regards as terrorist groups..

No US and Iranian leaders have met since the 444-day hostage crisis that broke relations and hobbled Jimmy Carter’s presidency. Obama talked by telephone with Rouhani in 2013, but the Iranian leader declined to meet in person amid pressure from hard-liners in his own country.

The prospects that Iran would agree to such a meeting now are unclear. Rouhani and Zarif are answerable to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has said repeatedly there can be no negotiations with the Trump administration.

Still, in Iran, many Iranians appeared to welcome the news of a possible meeting if it would ease the country’s economic travails. Rouhani, who has suggested he would engage in such a meeting if “the problems of my people and country will be resolved,” said the government would evaluate Zarif’s trip to the G-7 summit.

Trump said Macron had asked if he had any objection before Zarif’s visit and that he did not. “I spoke to President Macron yesterday, and I knew everything he was doing,” he said. “And I approve whatever he was doing. And I thought it was fine.”

But Trump said he had chosen not to see Zarif, who became the target of sanctions by the Trump administration last month. “I think it’s too soon to meet, I didn’t want to meet,” Trump said. “But it’s true there’ll be time to meet with Iran, and it’s going to be a great thing for Iran. They have a great potential.”

The comity between Trump and Macron — the pair hugged during their news conference — contrasted with last year, when the US president stormed out of the group’s meeting in Canada with harsh criticism of its host, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and without signing the joint communiqué.

But even as leaders stuck to polite tones, their differences were evident. Trump skipped a session on climate change and the oceans after aides privately complained that Macron, as the summit host, was too focused on “niche issues.”

Stephanie Grisham, the White House press secretary, said Trump missed the climate session because he had other meetings, including a one-on-one session with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany. But news cameras captured Merkel at the beginning of the climate change session, having apparently decided to at least make an appearance before meeting with Trump.

At the session he skipped, the remaining leaders agreed on a $20 million aid package to help Brazil and its neighbors fight the fires raging in the Amazon rainforest.

On other issues, Trump found his attention rebuffed. Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, attending as a guest, declined Trump’s offer to mediate the escalating dispute with Pakistan over the territory of Kashmir.

“These issues are bilateral,” Modi said as he sat with Trump for a meeting on the summit sidelines.

Trump also was alone among the G-7 in reiterating his support for readmitting Russia to the annual gathering. The Russians were expelled after President Vladimir Putin of Russia, who is admired by Trump, annexed Crimea in 2014.


On Monday, Trump told reporters that as the host of next year’s meeting, “I would certainly invite him.”