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US President Donald Trump (centre) shakes hands with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping before a group photo at the G20 summit in Osaka on Friday. Photo: AP

Beneath the smiles and handshakes, tensions simmer as world leaders meet for G20

  • Xi Jinping makes beeline to shake hands with Donald Trump before traditional ‘family photo’ at start of Osaka summit
  • But geopolitical rifts between some are evident, despite the camaraderie
After converging in Osaka, Japan amid heavy rains, world leaders gathered on Friday morning for the traditional “family photo” that marks the start of the Group of 20 powwow. But beneath the smiling faces of the world’s most powerful people, tensions were brewing.
The year-long trade war between Beijing and Washington put the spotlight on Chinese President Xi Jinping, who made a beeline to shake hands with his US counterpart Donald Trump before the group picture, ahead of their high-stakes meeting on Saturday. It was the first time the two leaders had met in person since they called a truce on tariffs in December at the last G20 summit in Argentina – a ceasefire that ended last month as trade talks stalled.

In contrast, Xi and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau were seen later in the day sitting together but not talking, amid frosty relations between the two countries.

Moments before the shoot, Trump had crossed the red carpet with Vladimir Putin, at one point placing his hand on the Russian president’s back as they walked to the steps for the photo. The 38 world leaders took their places in three rows, with host Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the centre of the first – flanked on the left by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Trump, and on the right by Argentine President Mauricio Macri, Putin and Xi.

US President Donald Trump turns to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to exchange a few words as the other leaders wave. Photo: DPA

Across the sea of men – including a stern-looking Trump – mostly in black and navy suits, British Prime Minister Theresa May stood out in a bright red suit, the same one she wore when announcing her resignation last month.

The G20, an event critics say has lost relevance in recent years, comes at a time of growing populism and polarisation around the globe – from political schisms in Europe to American protectionism under Trump and the intensifying US-China conflict.

At a forum dedicated to international economic cooperation, the handshakes and shoulder-rubbing could not mask the growing divisions in the global trading system, with the trade war between Beijing and Washington at the forefront.

EU leaders issue trade war warning to US and China

After a more traditional photo, Abe directed the leaders to wave at the camera, during which the US president broke with the others in lifting their arms, instead turning to the Saudi prince to exchange a few words. Tensions briefly flared between the US and Saudi Arabia after the Saudi prince was accused of orchestrating the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October.

Photo shoot over, the leaders filed into an event on the digital economy, where some took the chance to confer informally with their counterparts: Trudeau flashed a thumbs up at Abe, French President Emmanuel Macron clasped Xi’s hands as they spoke for several minutes, and Macron later whispered a few words into Trump’s ear.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (left) talks with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and French President Emmanuel Macron during a digital economy session. Photo: DPA
Trudeau huddled with Australian Prime Minster Scott Morrison and Macron in a group discussion that was joined by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who sparked health concerns on Thursday when she was seen shaking in public for the second time in just over a week. A German government spokesman said she was “doing well” and nothing was wrong.

G20: all eyes on Trump and Iran, but Putin’s date with Xi and Modi is one to watch

Despite the camaraderie, some geopolitical rifts were still evident between leaders. Xi sat down at the table next to Abe, but while the two leaders shook hands, they did not engage further.

The two held bilateral talks on Thursday, after which it was announced that Xi would make a state visit to Japan next spring during cherry blossom season, to signal the growing rapprochement between the historic rivals. But Japan’s foreign press secretary Takeshi Osuga said Abe had raised the issues of China’s detention of Uygurs in Xinjiang and the controversial extradition bill in Hong Kong that set off mass protests in the city. Before the summit, Beijing said it would not allow G20 nations to discuss Hong Kong.

During their photo together on Friday, Xi was unsmiling – in contrast to his more cheery expression while shaking hands with Abe the day before. Abe meanwhile appeared to sigh when Xi walked off the stage, as he waited for the next photo. By comparison, Trump appeared more relaxed when striding around the G20 venue in Osaka, waving and smiling when it was his turn to pose next to Abe, and thanking the Japanese prime minister afterwards.

US President Donald Trump is welcomed by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Photo: AFP
At a working lunch round table between the leaders, Xi was seated next to Trudeau but they were not seen interacting for the several minutes when cameras were still rolling in the room. Relations between Beijing and Ottawa have been tense over the detention of two Canadian nationals in China, seen as retribution for Canada’s arrest of Huawei executive Sabrina Meng Wanzhou. Canada said it had assembled a “broad international coalition” against arbitrary detentions, and Trudeau’s office said the prime minister had “brief, constructive” interactions with Xi on Friday.

Xi, who arrived at the G20 summit without his wife, Peng Liyuan, and brought his own vacuum flask, was accompanied by a female translator. Trump’s wife, Melania Trump, did not join him either, but his team included his senior advisers, daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner.

Additional reporting by Wendy Wu, Catherine Wong, Liu Zhen and Kristin Huang in Osaka