The Beijing show over, Donald Trump and Xi Jinping push their own world trade orders at Apec
US president sends hardline message on South China Sea and trade protectionism while Chinese leader offers his country as a defender of globalisation
No sooner had the leaders of China and the United States patted each other on the back for a swag of business deals in Beijing than they were taking diverging stands on global trade at a regional summit in Vietnam.
The two presidents arrived on Friday in the central Vietnamese city of Da Nang, a former American military base facing the South China Sea, for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation CEO summit, just hours after both lauded the success of US President Donald Trump’s first state trip to China.
Trump headed straight to the podium to deliver a confrontational speech to regional business leaders centred on his “America first” policy – a fiery protectionist doctrine that led the US to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.
“We are not going to let the United States be taken advantage of any more,” he said. “I am always going to put America first the same way that I expect all of you in this room to put your countries first.”
Without naming China, Trump threatened that the US would not tolerate “audacious intellectual theft”, echoing his long-standing complaints about Chinese trade practices.
His hardline address also promoted a US vision for the “Indo-Pacific” region, a term his administration has increasingly adopted in lieu of “Asia-Pacific”, which China prefers.
Trump said the future of the region depended on “freedom of navigation and overflight, including open shipping lanes”, an apparent jab at China’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea. China has various overlapping territorial claims in the energy-rich waters, a source of bitter conflict with its neighbours.
He ended his speech with a reminder of Vietnam’s historical and ongoing disputes with China, invoking the tale of Vietnam’s Trung sisters, who were crushed in a failed revolt against Chinese overlords 2,000 years ago.
Just moments later, President Xi Jinping painted a contrasting vision, with China as a defender of “irreversible” globalisation.
“The building of an Asia Pacific free-trade era is a long-cherished dream of the business community of our region,” Xi said. “This is a new journey for greater integration with the world.”
Xi heralded the rise of multilateralism as he touted China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” to revive trade and infrastructure from Asia to Africa, Europe and beyond.
He said that over the next 15 years, China would aim to import US$24 trillion in goods, drawing in US$2 trillion in direct investment and generating a similar amount in outbound flows. He added: “All businesses registered in China will be treated as equals.”
This followed Beijing’s announcement on Fridayit would relax ownership restrictions on foreign joint ventures in the financial services and insurance sectors.
Xi also invited countries in the region to “board China’s express train of development”, a phrase he has brandished in recent years to encourage mutual development.
Analysts said Xi and Trump’s conflicting regional visions were not surprising. Lingnan University international relations professor Zhang Baohui said Trump was playing to a different audience in Hanoi with his South China Sea stand and allusions to China.
“In Hanoi, in another context, he now highlights a very different approach that implies [the Chinese] are troublemakers in the region,” Zhang said. “He wants US allies in the region to think the US will not abandon the South China Sea, and there is no major break between his administration and [former US president Barack] Obama’s South China Sea policy.”
He said Xi sought to put distance between himself and Trump by portraying China as a regional economic leader and safeguarder of globalisation.
Chin-Hao Huang, head of studies for global affairs at Singapore’s Yale-NUS College, said the leaders’ messages reflected the domestic sentiments in each country, and the continued strategic competition between China and the US.
“It’s not completely unexpected that we saw Trump’s message to be one centred around promoting US interests in terms of trade and rectifying some of the trade imbalance,” Huang said. “He wants to signal that the US is still very much in the game in the region … promoting a rule-based order.” That’s the kind of tone that strikes the right note with a lot of allies and partner countries in this part of the region.”
Despite the show of friendliness between Trump and Xi in Beijing, from China’s red carpet welcome to Trump’s tweeted platitudes, unresolved conflicts still stalk bilateral ties. “There are still many uncertainties in their relationship,” said Liu Weidong, a US affairs expert from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “China-US trade tensions represent a structural conflict, which cannot be easily resolved … The reason is the US has a different understanding of the trade deficit from China, and it is difficult for both sides to reach a compromise.”
Additional reporting by Kinling Lo and Laura Zhou