March 19 at 8:20 AM 

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is about to go face-to-face with foreign counterparts rattled by the Trump administration’s new trade offensive. 

The annual meeting of G-20 finance ministers, kicking off today in Buenos Aires, poses an early test for Mnuchin and the Trump team: The administration is aiming to prove it can work with allies to challenge what it calls China’s abusive practices even as it presses forward with global steel and aluminum tariffs set to take effect Friday.

The American delegation cranked up the stakes Sunday when David Malpass, Treasury’s undersecretary for international affairs, announced the U.S. withdrawal from decade-old formal economic talks with Beijing. “Because there wasn’t a path back toward a market orientation, I discontinued the China economic dialogue,” Malpass said. He walked the statement back later Sunday, saying he misspoke, but he declined to clarify where things stand, per Bloomberg. Treasury spokesman Tony Sayegh indicated the talks — initiated by then-Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson in a bid to improve coordination between the economic giants — will continue in private:

Correction: Treasury has not discontinued the US China Comprehensive Economic Dialogue. The focus is for the Secretary to hold frequent private talks with senior level officials and we look forward to them continuing.

The summit in Argentina comes as the administration eyes more than $30 billion in tariffs on a wide range of Chinese products, new investment restrictions and limits on visas as part of a broader confrontation with the nation over its treatment of American intellectual property. Those could be rolled out as soon as this week.


At the G-20 meeting, Mnuchin and his team will seek to rally support for the challenge to China from a crowd nervous about the consequences closer to home of the administration’s protectionist lurch. The treasury secretary stunned last year’s confab by refusing to endorse a joint statement that committed participants to resisting “all forms of protectionism.” The group adopted watered-down language instead.

This year, major U.S. trading partners are moving to resist the administration’s go-it-alone strategy. From Reuters’s David Lawden and Luc Cohen:

Several G-20 officials, including the finance ministers from host country Argentina and Germany, said they will insist on maintaining G-20 communique language emphasizing ‘the crucial role of the rules-based international trading system.’ An early draft of the G-20 communique seen by Reuters contained that phrase and added: ‘We note the importance of bilateral, regional and plurilateral agreements being open, transparent, inclusive and WTO-consistent, and commit to working to ensure they complement the multilateral trade agreements.’ But it was unclear whether that language will stand.

Mnuchin, in an interview with The Washington Post’s Damian Paletta last week, defended the Trump administration’s approach — which Damian wrote is testing his ability to “toggle between diplomat and loyal soldier.”

“If you are not prepared to do things, you are not going to have results,” Mnuchin said. “While on the one hand I can say our objective is to not have a trade war, that’s consistent with the president saying we can win a trade war.” And he played down the centrality of the joint statement: “What I realize a year later into this is — not that the communique isn’t important — but what’s more important is people understanding our policies and having good two-way communication about our policies,” Mnuchin said.

Marietje Schaake, a member of the European Parliament, reacted skeptically to that comment from Mnuchin:

While Mnuchin heads south, Germany’s economy minister is heading west to Washington. Peter Altmaier, a confidante of German chancellor Angela Merkel, is coming to town to meet with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross — and “anyone in Washington who is willing to talk” — in an attempt to head off a tariff-based trade war, Bloomberg reports. These will be the first high-level talks between the two countries since Trump announced the tariffs. 

And German finance minister Olaf Scholz sounded prime for a confrontation with Mnuchin, per Bloomberg’s Saleha Mohsin:

Tense ahead? Germany’s Scholz to tell @stevenmnuchin1 to back free trade. It’s a “very important resource” for the world eco, Scholtz told reporters on the way to . Finance ministers hould keep talking until a common position on trade is found, he said.

At home, Trump is pressing for an even freer hand to remake the U.S. approach to the global trading system. Axios’s Jonathan Swan reports the president wants Congress to give him unilateral authority to raise tariffs, a grab that would kneecap the World Trade Organization. Congressional Republicans, who have made their noisiest show of resistance to Trump over protecting free trade, won’t comply. Indeed, look for Republican lawmakers to put the Trump administration’s recent moves on the spot this week when U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer testifies Wednesday before the House Ways and Means Committee and Thursday before the Senate Finance Committee; Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross takes his turn in the hot seat on Thursday when he testifies before Ways and Means.