Locked in a trade war, China and United States try to rally support in Asia

  • Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang and Mike Pence make the regional rounds as their countries compete for influence
PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 November, 2018, 11:33pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 November, 2018, 8:56am

China and the United States are competing in a new round of diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific this week, as leaders from the world’s two biggest economies try to rally support at key international meetings.

With Beijing battling slowing growth and the fallout from a trade war with the US, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang landed in Singapore on Monday for a five-day visit that will include the annual summit for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).

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Chinese President Xi Jinping will also attend the Apec summit at Papua New Guinea later in the week, followed by a visit to the Philippines and Brunei, while US Vice–President Mike Pence has embarked on a weeklong visit to Japan, Singapore, Australia and Papua New Guinea, where he is expected to expand on the US’ Indo-Pacific vision. Pence’s trip, which started on Sunday, is his third to Asia since taking office in January 2017.

Li’s arrival in Singapore coincided with the publication of an opinion piece in The Straits Times in which he spoke out against protectionism.

“Openness must be upheld as it is not just a means to an end, but a tenet in its own right, which will be more firmly embraced through tests and trials,” he wrote.

“China has opened its door to the world; we will never close it but open it even wider.”

Late last week, Pence took indirect aim at China and sought to reassure America’s allies in Asia that Washington was committed to the region.

“Our nation’s security and prosperity depend on this vital region, and the United States will continue to ensure that all nations, large and small, can thrive and prosper in a free and open Indo-Pacific,” Pence wrote in an opinion piece in The Washington Post.

“Nations that oppress their people often violate their neighbours’ sovereignty as well. Authoritarianism and aggression have no place in the Indo-Pacific region.”

Liu Weidong, a China-US affairs specialist from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said Pence’s trip to Asia was an attempt to draw more of China’s neighbours into the US orbit.

“Pence is trying to compete against Chinese influence in the Asia-Pacific by emphasising China’s threat and the US’ commitment to the region,” Liu said.

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But China’s neighbours might look for ways to bridge the differences between the two rivals rather than be drawn into a competition that would lead to a broader economic downturn, said Song Junying, a Southeast Asian affairs expert also from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

“Although the trade war opens the US door to more imports from other countries, including Southeast Asian countries, tensions between China and the United States will harm every country if they continue,” Song said.

Washington and Beijing have also been at odds over the South China Sea and Taiwan, but the two countries have engaged in high-level exchanges in recent days.

In a meeting with former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger last week, Xi said that China wanted to resolve problems with the US through dialogue – but that Washington must respect its development path and interests.

Also last week, top foreign affairs and defence officials from the two sides met for much-delayed diplomatic and security discussions in Washington.

Chinese Politburo member Yang Jiechi said China believed that “that no country should use any excuse to engage in militarisation in the region”, while US Secretary of Defence James Mattis said the US shared its “continued concern about China’s activities and militarisation in the South China Sea”.