It was harmony not war.
Amid growing tensions between the United States and its major trading partners, finance ministers of the world’s 20 biggest economies managed to end their summit in the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires without major controversy.
And yet there’s little evidence trade conflicts will be resolved anytime soon. Even so, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin sought to minimize simmering tensions at this weekend’s two-day summit, calling talks with US allies on trade and other matters “very productive.”
“I don’t take away that we are divided,” said Mnuchin, who held 14 different bilateral meetings, including with finance chiefs from Canada, Mexico, France, Japan and the United Kingdom. “We had good conversations. We have trade disputes that we are trying to resolve.”
“People are trying to make this about US protectionism – that’s not the case,” said Mnuchin. “This is about free and fair trade.”
It was a stark contrast to the G7 finance ministers meeting in Whistler, Canada, that left Mnuchin largely isolated as a result of the Trump administration’s decision to slap steel and aluminum tariffs on the European Union, Mexico and Canada.
Argentina’s Treasury Minister Nicolas Dujovne said the final communique, which was agreed upon by finance ministers and central bankers, wasn’t intended to deny trade disputes among members, but to help maintain consensus among members of a vital, multilateral organization.
“It is not a question of denying differences in certain fields,” said Dujovne at a press conference. “There is always dialogue – very rough and sincere dialogue. [But] there is a strong and clear vision to keep this group alive and functioning in harmony.”
Unlike past summits, the secretary said it was the “easiest communique” to be agreed upon by G20 finance chiefs. “The trade language was accepted right away,” he said.
At his first G20 meeting in Germany, Mnuchin clashed with his global peers on the communique by pushing to drop a disavowal of protectionism.
“I wouldn’t say that we can argue that we made progress, but I think we can clearly say there is a sense we need to keep working to make progress,” Canadian Finance Minister Bill Morneau told Bloomberg in an interview Saturday.
This weekend’s finance ministers meeting comes days after President Donald Trump accused both Europe and China of manipulating their currencies to boost exports and threatened to impose up tariffs on up to $500 billion worth of Chinese products.
At the close of two days of talks, global policy makers emphasized the need “to step up dialogue and actions” between countries to minimize risks to global growth and improve confidence on trade.
“We are working to strengthen the contribution of trade to our economies,” according to the final communique. It also noted “downside risks” posed to the global economy as a result of “heightened trade and geopolitical tensions.”
International Monetary Fund Director Christine Lagarde encouraged policy makers to address those risks in a “cooperative spirit” to minimize dampening global growth.
“I urged once more that trade conflicts be resolved via international cooperation without resort to exceptional measures,” said Lagarde in a statement following the close of the meeting.
Mnuchin said the United States maintains a strong interest in reaching a free trade agreement with both the European Union and Japan, if certain conditions were met. Those efforts have been complicated by measures taken by the US to slap tariffs on steel and aluminum imports and new threats on autos.
French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said the EU would not consider launching trade talks with the US unless Trump first withdraws the steel and aluminum tariffs and stands down on a car tariff threat.
“We refuse to negotiate with a gun to our head,” Le Maire told reporters on the sidelines of the meeting on Saturday.
Should the US impose further tariffs, “we won’t have any other choice but to retaliate once again,” he said.
Next week, Trump is hosting European Commissioner Jean-Claude Juncker at the White House to continue trade talks, including the possibility of averting import tariffs on European automakers.
“We’re looking forward to trying to solve the trade issues with the EU, which has not just tariffs but not tariff barriers,” said Mnuchin. “I do see the light at the end of the tunnel.”