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Trump's angry tweets leave G7 in disarray and put Abe in a bind

Kyodo, AP

Trying to bridging the gap between the United States and other Group of Seven members, over controversial new U.S. metal tariffs, has put Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in a complicated situation at the Canada summit.

Abe stressed the unity of members in support of fair trade, while refraining from directly repeating Japan’s concern about the U.S. levies, during the two-day summit through Saturday in the Charlevoix region of Quebec. But U.S. President Donald Trump’s abrupt rejection of the joint communique and angry tweets left the annual meeting in disarray.

In a post-meeting press conference Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who chaired the summit, expressed his disappointment over Washington’s recent decision to impose new tariffs on steel and aluminum. Trump responded via Twitter by calling him “very dishonest and weak,” backing off from the communique he had signed hours earlier.

The attack on a longtime ally and its leader drew sharp criticism. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who also attended the summit, told German public television that she found Trump’s tweet disavowing the G7 statement “sobering” and “a little depressing.” Merkel also said the European Union would “act” against the U.S. trade measures.

Unbowed, Trump tweeted anew Monday morning from Singapore: “Fair Trade is now to be called Fool Trade if it is not Reciprocal. According to a Canada release, they make almost 100 Billion Dollars in Trade with U.S. (guess they were bragging and got caught!). Minimum is 17B. Tax Dairy from us at 270%. Then Justin acts hurt when called out!”

Roland Paris, a former foreign policy adviser to Trudeau, jabbed back at Trump on Twitter: “Big tough guy once he’s back on his airplane. Can’t do it in person. … He’s a pathetic little man-child.”

Trudeau said he had reiterated to Trump, who left the G7 meeting before it ended, that tariffs would harm industries and workers on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border. Trudeau told reporters that imposing retaliatory measures “is not something I relish doing” but that he wouldn’t hesitate to do so because “I will always protect Canadian workers and Canadian interests.”

Takumi Shibaike, a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of Toronto, said Abe has to perform a balancing act as the leader of a country that is facing both U.S. tariffs and the North Korean threat.

Abe is desperate to garner support from Trump in dealing with North Korea, in particular to move forward the issue of Japanese nationals abducted by Pyongyang in the 1970s and 1980s — one of his government’s top priorities.

Trump is set to meet with the North’s leader, Kim Jong Un, on Tuesday in Singapore in the first-ever summit between sitting leaders of the U.S. and North Korea.

While G7 members have been sharing concerns over North Korea, disputes with the United States over trade have been escalating. Even before arriving in Charlevoix, the American leader drew fire from his G7 peers for new tariffs on imported steel and aluminum products including those from Canada and the European Union. Japan had already been subject to the levies as part of Trump’s “America First” policies.

Before leaving Washington for Quebec, Trump abruptly recommended that Russia be brought back into the G7 in a move that further fueled disharmony among members.

Under his administration, the world’s largest economy has undermined the multilateral orders it created and given up its leading role in the G7 as promoter of free and fair global trade based on World Trade Organization rules, economists say.

Japan’s Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasutoshi Nishimura, who briefed reporters after the first day of the summit, admitted that there “were lots of critical comments” about the U.S. metal tariffs.

Trump is seeking additional tariffs of as much as 25 percent on automobile imports, up from 2.5 percent, in a move that, if realized, could deal a huge blow to major car exporters Japan and Germany. Amid growing speculation that the G7 leaders would not be able to agree on a post-summit communique, Trudeau managed to issue a statement signed by all the participating leaders.

“We acknowledge that free, fair and mutually beneficial trade and investment, while creating reciprocal benefits, are key engines for growth and job creation,” the statement said.

Expressing a commitment to modernize the World Trade Organization “to make it more fair as soon as possible,” the communique said, “We strive to reduce tariff barriers, non-tariff barriers and subsidies.” It also maintained the phrase “to fight protectionism,” which was also used last year.

Hitoshi Suzuki, an associate professor of European international relations at the University of Niigata Prefecture, said the leaders’ statement matters because issuing one is the “raison d’etre” of the G7.

On North Korea, Abe called on other G7 members to support Trump ahead of the summit with Kim. “Donald will face one of the most important meetings in the century in four days. The G7 must come together to support him,” Abe was quoted by Nishimura as saying in Friday’s session on security.

Abe has repeatedly urged Trump to raise the abduction issue in his upcoming summit with Kim, arranging talks in Washington en route to the annual G7 gathering to press the point home to the U.S. leader.

Abe is considered to have the ear of those at the G7 summit given that he is one of the second longest-serving leaders after German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Suzuki said.

But with the summit ending in a war of words, Abe’s attempt to defuse the conflict over U.S. trade policy during the meeting apparently had little effect on Trump after all.

Shibaike said there was little the Japanese prime minister could have done except “take a back seat on the trade issue while seeking reassurance that the United States and Japan are on the same page regarding North Korea.”